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Photograph by Con Kelleher
Boys go bragh: Lunasa tours relentlessly, spreading the love of Celtic music far and wide.

The Irish Beat

Lunasa specializes in the rhythm of a different island.

By Andrew Gilbert

Inspiration never seems to be in short supply for Lunasa. The hottest instrumental band on the Irish music scene, Lunasa has won an impressive international following with its pan-Celtic repertoire and emphatically rhythmic arrangements.

Featuring flutist Kevin Crawford, All-Ireland fiddle champion Sean Smyth, uilleann piper Cillian Vallely, guitarist Paul Meehan and acoustic bassist Trevor Hutchinson, Lunasa has picked up the weighty mantle of the Bothy Band, the legendary sextet that revitalized traditional Irish music during its brief but brilliant run in the late '70s.

With a tireless touring schedule, the group has played a wide array of Northern California venues in recent years, but Lunasa is at its most mind-blowing in close quarters, like Sunday's Celtic Society of Monterey Bay-produced concert at Kuumbwa.

Without diluting the intoxicating Celtic melodies, Lunasa has developed an innovative, streamlined sound powered by the dynamic rhythm section combo of Meehan's percussive guitar chords and Hutchinson's propulsive bass, an instrument seldom featured in Irish folk music.

Crawford notes that Lunasa is essentially a traditional Irish band, "but what sets us apart is the bass and the guitar, and their contribution to the tunes," says the flutist from Stratford-upon-Avon. "In a lot of traditional Irish bands, the melody is to the fore. With Lunasa, everybody has an equal input into both the arrangement and execution of the tune."

The band's name, pronounced "LOO-nuh-suh," stems from an ancient Celtic harvest festival in honor of the Irish god Lugh, muse of the arts.

Since the group first came together in 1996, it has certainly been a fertile force in raising Celtic music's international profile, with a repertoire drawn from Irish, Breton and Galician sources. Besides the group's potent dance grooves, Crawford attributes Lunasa's far-flung following to its punishing road schedule.

"We do tour excessively," Crawford says, "which obviously helps. We're delighted with the way our music has been accepted by a wide range of people around the globe."

The band has been particularly successful at capturing its boundless bandstand energy on CD, which may have something to do with the quintet's knack for recording in grand settings. For instance, Lunasa recorded the last record, 2003's Redwood in Cotati after a refreshing sojourn among Northern California's redwoods. The acclaimed followup, The Kinnitty Sessions, is a thrilling live album recorded before an invited audience at Ireland's Kinnitty Castle.

The band's consciousness of location and audience is another reason it's such a formidable force on the road. For its Bay Area concerts, Lunasa knows it's performing for a savvy audience well versed in the Celtic canon.

"You do kind of choose your pieces more carefully coming out to the Bay Area," Crawford says. "It's important to deliver a fair slice of what your audience would like. It's also important to play new material for an audience like that, keeping the whole thing new and fresh."

LUNASA plays Sunday, March, 1 at 7pm at Kuumbwa, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25; or 408.847.6982.

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