Lunasa may usually be counted among the hottest acts in Irish traditional music, but not when I speak with the band’s bassist, Trevor Hutchinson. In fact he is in danger of catching frostbite, being mid-tour in Alaska. “I think it’s minus 30 Fahrenheit,” he shivers into the telephone. “I went out to today to try and get some breakfast, and my nose almost froze off. You can only go out for about 10 minutes. It’s just staggering.”
This is the band’s second tour of Alaska. The first time they went there directly from a Melbourne heat-wave. “I think we dropped about 70 degrees over night,” says Hutchinson. “This time we’re going to do it the other way around.”
Are they big in Alaska?
“Actually, believe it or not, we are,” he says. “It’s an amazing place to play. I guess a lot of people probably don’t come here. Each venue requires at least one flight to reach, and that’s very expensive. But it’s fun to do. Great, great audiences. It’s really kind of the last frontier out here, and the audiences are that spirited it reminds me of some of the wilder places in Australia that we’ve played.”
Lunasa was originally formed for a 1997 Australian tour proposed by the local promoter Seamus Finneran. Hutchinson and guitarist Donogh Hennessy assembled a band, chose a name and recorded a CD. By their second Australian tour Lunasa had become all the members’ main priority. A couple of personnel changes later the band retains its line-up of flute/whistles, fiddle, uilleann pipes, guitar and bass.
Hutchinson came to Lunasa via the Waterboys (with whom he has just completed a 25th anniversary reunion tour) and the Sharon Shannon Band. He had not had much exposure to Irish traditional music “other than just living in Ireland” until the Waterboys began dabbling in it. With Shannon he began to find a role for the double bass, which was not part of the music’s history. That role was to provide steaming propulsion (usually in tandem with the rhythm guitar, now played by Ed Boyd), without getting in the way of the intricate melodies. This has been a defining aspect of Lunasa’s sound, and has no doubt played its part in their world-wide popularity.
There are slim pickings for them these days in Ireland, however. “It’s very difficult for all the traditional bands to pull in an audience in Ireland,” says Hutchinson. He puts it down to the country’s savage recession combined with a cyclical element in musical fashion. He says that like all traditions Ireland’s music needs to reinvent itself every generation or so: “I suppose the whole scene looks inward for a while, and gets more conservative, and then it will probably swing back around again.”
Helped, perhaps, by the band’s piper, Cillian Vallely, becoming an overnight rock star courtesy of playing on Bruce Springsteen’s new ITAL High Hopes ITAL album. The band’s fee must have shot up, I suggest. “Yeah, exponentially,” retorts Hutchinson.
Lunasa: Factory Theatre, Sydney, March 2; The Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne, March 5.