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Lunasa, Tim O’Brien play sets in a shared musical dialect

March 22, 2019

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — Five Irish and two Americans took a Roanoke stage on Thursday night. There were jokes about word pronunciation.

It started with West Virginia native Tim O’Brien wondering how to pronounce “Cas,” the title of Irish band Lunasa’s 2018 album. Lunasa whistle and flute man Kevin Crawford corrected his pronunciation, which ended with a “z″ sound, in favor of a harder “s,” then decided that “caz” sounded cooler, after all.

Crawford told the audience at Jefferson Center’s Shaftman Performance Hall that he shouldn’t criticize O’Brien, because stateside, Lunasa members like to eat at Chuh-POT-ul and order salads with ah-roo-GAL-uh at PANera.

These acts, which have worked together plenty in the past — and have played Jefferson Center separately on multiple occasions — shared a common vocabulary of roots music dialects. It served them well during two sets of music that entertained an often clapping, sometimes stomping crowd of 562 in the auditorium.

O’Brien, long based in Nashville, Tennessee, opened the show with his partner, Jan Fabricius. They started with a couple songs from West Virginia natives — Billy Edd Wheeler’s “High Flying Bird” and Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.” O’Brien powered the former with an alternating bass, thumb-and-fingers, blues guitar style. He covered the Withers tune with a voice that hit the sweet spot between reedy and resonant, always consistent, with Fabricius harmonizing closely. They followed that with “Beyond,” a western-feeling number, and the bluegrassy “Amazing Love,” both from O’Brien’s brand new album, “Tim O’Brien Band.”

The trad-Irish five joined them on stage for the rest of the set. The harmonized melodies that Crawford, uilleann piper Cillian Vallely and fiddler Colin Farrell laid out were a bittersweet complement to O’Brien’s Celtic-derived bluegrass and country songs. They and O’Brien, on mandolin and fiddle, chugged along with bassist Trevor Hutchinson and guitarist Ed Boyd on originals including “Guardian Angel,” which O’Brien said was inspired by an older sister who died at 6, when he was only 2.

“I made her my angel / She has her own wings ... Too young to remember / I miss her the same,” he sang.

The 50-minute set included “The Water Is Wise,” O’Brien’s vocal contribution to “Cas.”

Lunasa is an instrumental act of more than 20 years, and the band took the stage on its own for some of the voice-free numbers on “Cas.” Remembering a man in the crowd who yelled for “more vocals” earlier in the night, Crawford said, “You’ll have a while to wait.” The music included a reel called “The Tattie Ball,” a tune meant to celebrate the potato harvest. Farrell’s fiddle sounded celebratory, for sure.

Vallely put down his uilleann bag pipe in favor of a whistle for jigs that he wrote and named for his daughters. “Sinead Maire’s” had a musical vibe reminiscent of the wondrous feeling connected to looking at a new baby. Guitarist Boyd led the band through three tunes picked up in France’s Brittany region. He said that he thought the first of them, “Peh Trouz Zou Ar En Doar,” translated in English to “Sweet Home Alabama.” That line got the biggest laugh of the night, and he punctuated it, using a French accent when he repeated the Lynyrd Skynyrd song title.

The French tunes may have been more hypnotizing, as Boyd suggested, but the playing sounded no less bittersweet. Irish players just haz the sadz, in the internet’s ancient Lolcats dialect.

O’Brien and Fabricius rejoined the quintet for closing numbers including “Mick Ryan’s Lament,” about a pair of Irish brothers who escaped the potato famine only to get killed, one in Civil War Vicksburg, the other with Custer at The Little Big Horn.

They closed the 65-minute set with a rousing collection of songs called “The Tinker’s Frolics,” O’Brien switching between fiddle and mandolin, then encored with O’Brien’s “A Mountaineer Is Always Free,” about an immigrant finding his place.

“No kings and no landlords to treat us like beggars and thieves / There’s no one but God here to fear or to look down on me,” he and Fabricius sang.

The audience gave both songs standing ovations, ending a strong night for some performers who felt right at home here, and ending the 2018-2019 Star City Series season at the Jeff.

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com