When acclaimed Irish instrumental band Lúnasa take the stage at Birmingham Town Hall next Wednesday it will be a nostalgic moment for their frontman and flautist Kevin Crawford, who will be back in the city where he was born and brought up, the place where his musical passions were first nurtured.
In the audience will be some of the family and friends who saw him develop from a whey-faced kid living in a terraced house in the old suburb of Rotton Park, peeping out his first tentative tunes on a cheap tin whistle, to the accomplished professional musician he is today, his talents showcased by a band with global appeal.
For Lúnasa – the accent goes on the first syllable, and the name derives from the Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh that celebrated the start of harvest – are now widely regarded as the finest contemporary Irish instrumental band around. They have a huge following, touring the USA two or three times a year; they are idolised in Japan, and big in many parts of Europe.
Their Birmingham concert is part of a UK tour which also promotes the band’s latest album, a collaboration with Ireland’s ground-breaking RTÉ Concert Orchestra, which prides itself on dismantling musical boundaries. It has played with Pavarotti, Cleo Laine, and John Lord of Deep Purple.
Although money was often tight in the terraced house in Rotton Park, where Kevin was born in 1967, he was exposed from an early age to a rich musical heritage. His parents Patrick and Mary had emigrated in the 1950s from their home just outside Miltown Malbay, County Clare. Kevin was steeped from an early age not only in their enthusiastic musical tastes, but in those of a colourful array of uncles who played all manner of instruments – harmonica, tin whistle and accordion.
“Neither my father or mother actually played, but they were both passionate about music, and my dad was a great singer,” says Kevin. “Some of the music I picked up at an early stage was courtesy of him. There was always music playing and many visiting musicians in the house.”
By the time the young Kevin attended St Patrick’s Catholic Primary School in Dudley Road, his musical ambitions were already apparent, and he was enthralled by all aspects of Irish culture. One teacher, Pat Brennan, still a major player on the Birmingham Irish music scene, helped him get his first tin whistle and gave him a few pointers.
His secondary education came courtesy of the old Cardinal Newman Roman Catholic School. But Kevin admits: “I didn’t really apply myself that much. By the age of 12 or 13 I was just really fanatical about Irish music. I would put in my hours at school, get out, and get back to playing music.”
He particularly loved the combination of fiddle and flute. He graduated from tin whistle to fiddle when a family friend gave him an old, un-stringed instrument during one of the many family holidays back to County Clare. He brought it home to Birmingham wrapped lovingly in a pillow case, had it restored, and had lessons with the highly-influential Birmingham-based fiddler Pat Molloy, who died in 2011. “I was so, so lucky to have fallen under his spell at such an early age. I don’t think there has ever been a person more enthusiastic and passionate about Irish music than him, a great, great guy. He was just what I needed.”
The lessons introduced him to many other young musicians in the city. But Kevin hankered after the whistle and the flute and sought the guidance of celebrated flautist Patsy Maloney from West Limerick who still lives in Birmingham.
“This was a real epiphany for me,” says Kevin. “To hear an amazing flute player and musician up close, to listen to the richness of the sound and watch how his fingers danced over the holes, even the way he held the instrument, and the ease with which he could command a sound, was just great.”
For several years Kevin didn’t own his own flute – Patsy would lend him his to play – but eventually, seeing her son’s promise, Mary and one of Kevin’s uncles, Marty, who was a missionary priest in Africa, got him a starter model, and then his mother spent her hard-earned savings on a concert flute, bought from Patsy Maloney.
By the age of 15 Kevin was playing in the pubs and clubs of Birmingham, at a time when he thinks the city probably had the most influential Irish music culture anywhere in the UK.
“The Irish music scene in Birmingham was incredibly vibrant. It was a real boom time generally, but in the 1980s Birmingham was a hot spot and musicians travelled there from all over the country.”
Their “turf” was the Big Bull’s Head, a rambling Victorian pub in Digbeth. From those sessions came the first group with which Kevin played, Long Acre, which toured in France and Holland, and cut a cassette which was played on Irish Radio one Sunday morning. Kevin’s dad was a regular listener to the station and his son happened to catch it. “That was a big moment,” he says. Then Long Acre landed a residency at the Irish Centre.
When Kevin was 21 years old he went to Longford, Ireland, to attend a friend’s wedding, and drifted across to County Clare looking for some good live music. He never returned and has lived there ever since.
He joined his second group, Grianán, with whom he recorded an album, and was then invited to join the well-established dance band Moving Cloud, with whom he recorded two albums and toured America. In October of 1996 Kevin married his wife Tracy. He was working as an advertising salesman and presenter for the radio station Clare FM, and when the biggest break in his life came he nearly missed it. He turned down an invitation to join Lúnasa on a visit to Australia because he felt he couldn’t jeopardise his day job by accepting.
But his boss agreed to hold his job for him, and Lúnasa toured all over Australia starting in the Blue Mountains. Their distinctive style, with the bass and guitar driving the melodic front line of flute, fiddle and pipes, got a rapturous response.
“We knew after the six weeks that we had something special,” says Kevin. Eventually the band became a full-time professional outfit with Trevor Hutchinson on double bass, Ed Boyd on guitar, Sean Smith on fiddle and low whistle, Cillian Vallely on Uilleann pipes and low whistle, and Kevin on concert flutes, and low
and tin whistles. They have been together now for 16 years and recorded nine albums.
“Irish music is in an incredibly healthy state at the moment,” says Kevin. “When I returned in the 80s it wasn’t seen as that cool. Now everyone’s doing it. It is great that the music has touched people in this way.”
* Lúnasa play Birmingham Town Hall on Wednesday, September 25. Tickets from the Box Office on 0121 780 4949, or online www.thsh.co.uk