The Scène Popeyes is the bigger of the two permanent stages in the Lafayette International Festival, and it was massive: a huge, curving flag banner of a stage arching up into the flawless blue sky.
The crowd drank cold beers as they waited for the Irish to arrive. It was breezy but still hot, and when the Lúnasa lads - Kevin Crawford, Cillian Vallely, Trevor Hutchinson, Paul Meehan, and Sean Smyth - strolled onto the stage, they were all wearing sun-glasses, and big ol’ smiles.
Kevin Crawford, resplendent in khaki shorts and shades, chatted to the crowd from the stage as the band set up.
“It’s Sean’s birthday,” he said. “And he is the only single man in the band, so if anyone wants to give him a present, then applications will be taken after the gig.”
The wind, while being great for the comfort level of the audience, soon caused more than a few problems for the sound man, as it blew across the stage and wreaked havoc with Kevin’s flute, Cillian’s pipes, and Sean’s whistle.
However, the band soon worked out how to knock the wind out of the wind’s sails. Kevin turned his back on the crowd, a lá Jim Morrison, and played that way, while Tony Deveron took time out from his photo-snapping to provide what Paul Meehan later described as ‘some creative wind-blocking’, offering up himself as a windshield for Sean.
“You are seeing my best side,” joked Kevin, “If the wind changes then I will face you, but don’t worry, I have a good mental image!”
After the gig, and over a few Heinekens, Paul Meehan and Cillian Vallely chatted about Lunasa’s latest album Lá Nua - or New Day - the International Festival, and the end of their latest American Tour.
“The new album came out to coincide with the tour, you know,” said Cillian. “We kind of recorded it in November, and then mixed it in January, and then finished it just in time for the tour. The tour was great. It started about three weeks ago on the East Coast, from Boston right down to North Carolina, And then we went up to London, Ontario for one day, and then down here to finish off, you know.”
Lá Nua is the first full album that guitarist Paul Meehan has recorded with the band, although he has collaborated on several others.
“I felt more involved in this one,” said Paul.
“There is a lot of new stuff like. Cillian wrote a lot of stuff, and Kevin has written a lot of stuff, so there is a lot of new tunes, and a couple of tunes there that were transposed into 7/8 time. Cillian’s mother and father have a lovely place up in the Cooley Mountains, so we had a week chilling out up there, and we just worked things out. Like arrangements, and what worked for all of us, but that we could do live as well - most of the stuff we are doing on the album, we are playing live. We still try to keep it in the vein of traditional music, but we also like to push the boundaries a little bit, and try different things…and people can decide whether or not it is good enough.”
While playing at the International Festival was Cillian’s first time in Lafayette, he is no stranger to Louisiana, having lived in New Orleans for some time when he was a student.
“I always really liked the place,” he said.
“There are two people that I know quite well out here. One is an old friend Tony Davoren who was originally from Ireland, but moved out here a few years ago. And I came down to hang out with Tony, and play and record with him. And other time, I was down with Karen Casey. And another great American musician Dirk Powell lives down here. So we had a couple of connections, but I always like coming to Louisiana. It’s very different from the rest of the States, it has a unique style, you know? It’s the perfect place to end the tour. It is so good that you wouldn’t want to go anywhere else after it!”
Lúnasa, as a band, were very appreciative of the Cajun reception of their music, and talked at length of the enthusiasm that they generally perceive in the States for Traditional, or not so Traditional, Celtic music.
“Traditional music has never been stronger, like, as far as I am concerned,” said Paul.
“We are playing the States, and some of the best players are over here, in Japan, and everywhere else. Irish music has never been stronger; the more you travel, and the more you see, you really realise that how good people are.”
Asking any band to define their sound is always a tricky question, so when asked to define the Lúnasa’s sound, Cillian took a long sip of his beer. And then another long sip.
“It’s traditional music, in that it is not anything else,” he said finally.
“But there are a lot of different influences...Rock…primarily Rock. A lot of that is coming from the use of the bass, and the style of the chord progressions, and we tend to pick tunes that work for this particular rhythm section. But they are still traditional tunes. They have traditional tune format. And they tend to be picked for the whole band sound, rather than tunes that suit just one individual. We tend to pick tunes as a collective thing. And I think in Lúnasa, the biggest difference is other band is that the harmony is as important as the melody. If the harmony doesn’t work on the guitar and bass, then we don’t do it: it has to work for everybody.”
So what is next, I asked.
“The idea is to go to Tony Davoren’s house and have a few beers,” said Cillian firmly, “And a few tunes. And then home early for bed…for midnight!”
The next day, post-Tony Davoren party, and therefore feeling just a little bit tired, I walked through Downtown Lafayette on the way to my car, almost ready to face the drive back to New Orleans. It was very quiet, and almost completely deserted. It was hard to believe that less than 24 hours ago there had been so much going on…it felt almost ghostly. But, you know, it was less than 12 months to the next Festival.
That wasn’t that long to wait really…