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Five men dressed in black coolly and confidently walked into their respective places on stage at the Diana Wortham Theatre as audience members greeted them with whistles and thunderous applause. Gauzy sheets draped across the ceiling, and blue and purple lights flooded the stage with soft and ethereal light. Kevin Crawford, song-writer and flutist for Lúnasa, introduced the ensemble and charmed the audience with his coy, Celtic flair and warm demeanor. Lúnasa is composed of five musicians: Crawford plus Sean Smyth (the group's founder), fiddle and whistles, Trevor Hutchinson, upright bass, Cillian Vallely, uilleann pipes and low whistle, and guitarist Ed Boyd.
The opening number began with all but Crawford, whose wicked-fast flute playing added the cherry on top of the gorgeous sound upon entering the ensemble. Foot-stomping Crawford maintained the pulse from which Lúnasa thrived. The opening piece changed tempi and flavors, transitioning from slower and lyrical melodies to energetic, hand-clapping tunes. At one point, Crawford turned away from his flute to shout "huh!" at the beginning of a new fast section. Audience members roared with approval and admiration. The lively Irish group finished the first number on a fast, lively crescendo to squeals of delight from the audience ringing throughout the theatre.
As I listened, I felt as though I were watching five friends "jammin'" and having a great time. The artists presented themselves with beautiful blends of professionalism and warmth. Crawford spoke once more, joking with the audience: "It normally takes people a long time to warm up to us." Giggling ensued. He thanked the caterers for feeding them that evening and continued, "We love eating barbeque, but it's not good to play after!"
Crawford explained that the first number, a combination of several songs, justified the fast transitions between movements and tempi. Songs including "New Day March" and "An Old Woman Would Dance" comprised the first piece.
The second piece began with just flute, guitar, and bass. A violin crept in, adding a sweet flavor to the sound. Upon hearing this second set, I realized some commonalities between the pieces: each number featured from two to four songs. They often began with slow and sweet melodies, then transitioned to a new tune altogether, increasing in speed and rhythmic intricacy. Each crooned its own melody, all cogs in this brilliant Celtic machine. This second offering featured pieces entitled "The Man from Moyasta" and "Days Around Lahinch."
Three reels, grouped as "Morning Nightcap," began with the lull of a humming pipe while the fiddle danced and fluttered about with arpeggios. Crawford relocated to the middle of the ensemble upon the cue of a key change. All looked to him for guidance as he seemed to serve as the tempo-marker and glue of the ensemble. The cheerful bunch smiled at each other as they played, leaning into their instrumental lines, bodies pulsing to the beat.
Another group of songs featured a nostalgic number entitled "East Village Days" coupled with a jig called "Timmy's Place." I could see myself contra dancing to these tunes, frustrated by the fact that we were sitting to enjoy this performance. As they played, all the musicians remained connected to their instruments as well as to one another. It amazed me how seamlessly they transitioned from one movement of a piece to the next.
This two-hour performance featured dozens of songs, the titles of which were only made known from time-to-time; Crawford saw more importance in explaining their origins and dedicating them to distinguished members of their audience and crew. As the evening unfolded, I found myself lost in a sea of gorgeous instrumentation.
The performance concluded with a few more salient pieces, one of which featured an eerie melody resonating from the uilleann pipes that Vallely considered a "ghostly tune." The sliding and bending of pitches over a drone created a hauntingly beautiful aura, leaving audience members spellbound. Lùnasa blanketed the audience in their joy for performance and music-making as they gave every last drop of energy to the final set. Met with a standing ovation, Lùnasa filled the hearts and minds of their fans with a contagious zeal for all things Celtic.
Asheville's Diana Wortham Theatre is one of our state's major stages for Celtic music from all over. Check the venue's website regularly for news of upcoming shows.