In Irish music today, tradition ain't what it used to be.
While the casual listener might think any group of musicians playing "Irish sounding" music on acoustic instruments is traditional, even those venerable veterans The Chieftains were considered revolutionaries when they first performed. Since then, there have been several generations of performers who are firmly and lovingly rooted in tradition, but who have reinvented the music, expanding the repertoire, instruments and arrangements.
This month sees the appearance of a new constellation of neo-traditional stars in the Irish music firmament: the Teetotallers -- flute player Kevin Crawford of Lunasa; guitarist John Doyle, formerly of Solas; and fiddler Martin Hayes of the duo Hayes and Cahill.
In a recent interview Crawford said the three began to play together at the request of a producer at a festival in California. They were all intrigued by how well the collaboration went, so began to coordinate calendars to create a tour and a yet-to-be released album.
Crawford and Hayes got a chance to explore the music of Ireland's County Clare where they both have roots. Crawford said the trio is taking some traditional, somewhat-rare Clare tunes and reinventing them -- for example, transposing them to new keys so they take on a new feel. Adding a rhythm guitar, played by Doyle, gives it a nontraditional spin as well.
Doyle, Crawford said, "is full of such creativity and energy, [which is] crucial to the whole mix."
In January 2012, the trio found time to record material for a studio album, but they are recording the upcoming tour to possibly release as an album instead. "The live thing is very special," Crawford said.
Though they are all "good listeners," he said, the music is not as improvised as one might think. Crawford said that while Doyle, as a non-lead instrumentalist, does get to vary his playing more, the flute and fiddle work closely together.
Though Crawford's Lunasa is sometimes cited as bringing a jazzy feel to Irish traditional instrumental music, Crawford said that there are just a few songs where the musicians improvise -- typically one player would showcase his improvisational skills in a particular song while the others "keep the thing locked down." He said in the band's earlier days, they improvised more freely, but decided it was probably a bit too much for audiences.
While the Lunasa band members are incredibly tight and can change tempos together on a dime, they were challenged in their recent collaboration with the Irish RTE orchestra (available on the band's website). Crawford said he was initially skeptical of playing with an orchestra and they did struggle at first. The five members of the band had to fall in step with the 46-member orchestra. "They don't budge," Crawford joked.
Once he heard the big gorgeous sound working in synch with the band, Crawford was converted. "It was real fun and a different kind of twist," he said. "It's great when you get that buzz from music."
The album is a new facet to their familiar sound. The album pushes a bit into "Riverdance" territory and could attract fans of that orchestrated Irish sound, but I think it may split their own fans. The lush sounds of the orchestra are sometimes barely noticeable and sometimes sit in like a sixth member, but seem to work best on the group's slower tunes, though they close the album with a powerful version of Lunasa's lively "The Merry Sisters of Fate."
These musicians make it plain that more than the notes, instruments or arrangements, traditional music is a function of the musician's soul, and that it is strong enough to withstand a bit of creative cultivation -- and maybe even come back stronger.
The Teetotallers live:
And on TV!
Lunasa and RTE Concert Orchestra: