by Maryann McTeague Keifer
I have to admit, I have been rabidly waiting for Lunasa’s new album. People often ask me which CD I would choose if I could have only one. That is an impossibly tough question as music is so tied in to one’s mood at the time, but if I truly could have only one, it would be from Lunasa. I love their sound, their tune choices, the way they play together-I just love them! So, a new album to add to my favorite list was a happy thought to have. Wait a minute, though, the album is named CAS which is Irish for “change.” I don’t want change. I want my Lunasa. The Lunasa I know what to expect from; the Lunasa I love; the Lunasa I can close my eyes and hear in my head. You can see where I was going when I got the preview….I opened the file, and first looked at the cover—very striking and colorful, so hard not to notice as you look through a CD rack or browse the new online CDs available—good move, lads!
Now to browse the liner notes, and what do I see? I see four singers, and not just any singers. I see Tim O’Brien, the great bluegrass vocalist. I see Natalie Merchant, folk rock singer, who I remember from 10,000 Maniacs--on a Lunasa album? Then there is last year’s much awarded and lauded Irish belt it out singer Daori Farrell. Everyone loves him, but on a Lunasa CD? Mary Chapin Carpenter, the dynamic country and folk alto, wow! Then I see the remarkable bluesman Eric Bibb. Just what is going on here? Trevor Hutchinson on double base, yeah, and on bouzouki, hmm cool, never saw him play that. Whoa-wait just one minute! Trevor on the Lap Steel Guitar?!!? Okay, now I am worried.
With trepidation, I downloaded the album and got ready to listen to what I was afraid I wasn’t going to care for. Well, knock me off my chair, this album is brilliant with a capital B. I chatted with Cillian, and he said they felt they wanted to look for some change, thus the title. I am sure many of you who have been Lunasa fans for all these years will have the same feelings I did, but believe me, you are going to be thrilled, not disappointed.
Of the twelve tracks, seven are tune sets, many written by band members, and will be manna to Lunasa aficionados. Gorgeous flute, low whistle sets, alluring pipes, magnificent fiddle, superb guitar, and the beguiling double bass are all there. There is new, though, a freshness to the style, a noticeably lighter touch in the arrangements. I am especially fond of the Pontivy set and its lilting low whistle start with fiddle and pipes weaving in and the double base and guitar holding it all together. The A Tribute to Larry set incudes a tune written by the master, Maurice Lennon, and no one could pay it better than Lunasa does here. There are trad tunes, Lunasa tunes, and tunes composed by young artists like box player Damien Mullane all played as only Kevin Crawford, Cillian Vallely, Sean Smyth, Colin Farrell, Trevor Hutchinson, and Ed Boyd can. The CD will take you to your happy Lunasa place without question.
Let’s get to the singers, all so well known and respected, yet now finding themselves singing with a band that has a very established “sound.” What is remarkable is that the singers and the band were able to form a sort of symbiotic relationship that results in each enhancing the music of the other. I believe the best example on the album is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s deep rich alto voice being accompanied by Trevor Hutchinson. Her voice becomes an instrument that is perfectly paired with the double bass. While you are listening, you can’t imagine Mary singing again without it. They are separate, but so well matched. Take one away, and we’d feel a loss.
Who would imagine Tim O’Brien singing with Lunasa, and yet, their accompaniment of The Water is Wise, bluegrass pipes included, give the song a depth and fullness that fascinates you as you are listening to it. Lunasa was able to weave their style, without losing its integrity, into the bluegrass. I can see Cillian’s smile as he controls his pipes and gets them to play in this American genre.
Their playing soothes and rounds out the great Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore standing up well to the robustness and raw strength of Daori Farrell’s voice, just as they give Natalie Merchant’s very folksy, unique and moving arrangement of The Bonnie Light Horseman a smoothness that takes you for a ride as you listen to her sing. Add this to the dynamic Eric Bibb’s gospel song My Lord What a Morning, and you will find the band has masterfully taken themselves and us out of the Lunasa comfort zone.
CAS is not an album you will listen to once and set aside. There is so much to offer, to keep listening to for new experiences each time you push play, to marvel at the talent that is contained and given for sharing. No, this is not an album to be looked at with trepidation, but rather, a new feather in the cap of the talented and influential musicians we know and love as Lunasa.