Friday, March 14, 2008

St. Patrick's Day I: Karan Casey and Lunasa

I almost did not go to this show last night. I had mentioned it to a good number of people--you know who you are--and despite some interest did not really have any takers. But then my friend Joyce sent me an e-mail yesterday morning and asked me if I was still up for the show, and I said, "Let's do it!" Well, Joyce, I owe you one because I am really glad that we got to see this concert.

The gig was at the Highline Ballroom. I was there back in early January with Peter to see Bill Evans' Soulgrass featuring Sam Bush--a combination of jazz and bluegrass featuring one of the great bluegrass musicians of our time. The only problem with that particular show was that you couldn't hear Sam Bush at all! He had the only acoustic stringed instrument on stage, and it was just lost underneath the electric banjo, electric violin and electric bass--not to mention the drums and saxophone. So I was a little bummed but not entirely surprised by the buzzing in the speakers that persisted throughout much of the first set last night. I think that it had something to do with the keyboard--when the keyboardist asked for more volume, the buzz came back after it had gone away for a bit.

But enough complaints. Karan Casey was the opening act, and the focus was pretty thoroughly on her voice. CaoimhĂ­n Vallely was playing keyboards; his brother--Karan's husband--Niall Vallely was on concertina; and Robbie Overson was on guitar. The arrangements though were sparse. Karan's voice was allowed to shine through.

She opened with a version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," emphasizing the missing limbs of poor Johnny, and then went into "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair." The centerpiece of the set consisted of a medley of three very sparse tunes. The first song was "Dunlavin Green" about the killing of 36 Irish prisoners by the British military in 1798, and the middle song was in Gaelic. At the end of the set, Karan said, "Well done -- yourselves, I mean! 'Cause that was pretty intense! Are ye all right?"

I respect Karan Casey's great vocal ability, but I have to say that the highlight of the set for me was when Niall Vallely got to wail on concertina. He performed a simply captivating medley with his fingers just flying across his 30-button Anglo concertina--at least, I think that is what he was playing. The tune was bluesy and gutsy. The other band members joined him to add some backup, but the concertina was holding center stage, and it was simply an impressive set of tunes.

For the encore, Karan asked us to sing, and in true New York fashion, no one clapped or shouted or anything. She sang, a capella, "One I Love," and a good number of us even joined in.

Lunasa followed Karan Casey. For whatever reason, I had not realized that these guys would be all instrumental. The line-up was upright electric bass, guitar, fiddle, uilleann pipes and flute; on two occasions, fiddler Sean Smyth and piper Cillian Vallely--yes, another brother--switched to flute, so that we had three-flute tunes. Kevin Crawford, the main flautist, doubled as MC. Their opening tune laid down a solid groove, and I was sold.

They were great. I didn't keep track of the tunes, so I don't have that much information to pass on. Sean Smyth fiddled in that aggressive, one-foot-forward way. Paul Meehan played a solid guitar backup and got to do one solo tune. Cillian Vallely's pipes meshed perfectly with the fiddle and flute. Kevin Crawford kept asking that Trevor Hutchinson's bass be turned up in the monitor. (Hutchinson played for a number of years with The Waterboys.) And Kevin's flute was delightful.

Kevin Crawford's best line of the night had to do with the fact that he and Paul Meehan were wearing green shirts in preparation for St. Patrick's Day: "And the rest of the boys, well, they're still preparing for the priesthood. ... We got our shirts at Daffy's, by the way. Love that place!"

He also scored when introducing a medley of three Breton dances: "I used to say that these were dances from Brittany, but people always thought I meant Spears, and she was getting all this credit for being a great Celtic songwriter." The Breton tunes were followed by a set of wonderful tunes from Galicia.

Each member of the band got to solo, and they nicely built up one tune out of the pipes solo--it became a total jam.

To just sit back and enjoy Irish tunes is an experience--no concern for lyrics and less concern for virtuosity than if you were watching a bluegrass or a jazz performance. These guys know these tunes inside and out and know how to play them as a unit. And Lunasa proved to be worth the trip downtown for sure.

At this show, I noticed a distinct switch from the traditional thank you of Irish bands--"T'anks very much!" The new line seems to be "T'anks a million!" I daresay that it has replaced "T'anks very much."

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