Kilfenora: More than just a great céilí band

The Kilfenora Céilí Band play Cork Opera House on Saturday, as part of their tour.

KEVIN Crawford, of traditional music group, Lunasa, is one of the main men behind the recent musical evolution of the legendary Kilfenora Céilí Band. Crawford, a flute player and producer, was born in Birmingham, UK, lived in Clare for a period, but now bases himself in New York.

“Everything to do with the Kilfenora excites me,” says Crawford. “The recent gear change has been happening since I came on board, as producer for their last CD, Chapter 8. The seed was sown back then and the band have nurtured the idea and watched it grow, resulting in a very new, yet distinctly Kilfenora sound”.

For Crawford to say the band are an incredible group of musicians is praise indeed. “They have the vision and talent to draw on influences slightly alien to the céilí-band format and incorporate them into their repertoire. The Kilfenora are now far more than a céilí band; they remain true to the roots of what the band stands for, but are better-known now, perhaps, as a stellar concert band. They’ve added so much more,” he says. “They are continuing the journey set out by founding members, over 100 years ago, in a way that’s current, fresh and very much alive.”

Crawford has been a breath of fresh air, says Kilfenora band leader, John Lynch, a third-generation member who has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, John Joe and dad, PJ. The band may have its origins in a fife-and-drum equivalent based in the north Clare village of Kilfenora, in the 1870s, but today they look to the past as well as embrace the present.

With tunes forged out of raw, native dance riffs from the Burren hills, and with the addition of viola, cello, bass and vocalist Don Stiffe’s licence to roam further afield for songs, the century-long odyssey of the Kilfenora is picking up pace.

“Our music has to appeal to a modern audience and Kieran Hanrahan of Stockton’s Wing, who was with us for three albums, and now Kevin, have brought us along musically,” says Lynch, who took over from Kitty Linnane as leader in 1993.

“Normally, we are a 20-piece céilí band, but when we go on tour that number whittles down to 13,” says Lynch. Three dancers, a singer, a lighting man and a sound engineer have been added to make what Lynch says is a spectacular show.

Artistic tension between the rich, dance music heritage and their big, new soundscape has added spice to their large-scale theatre spectacle, complete with pile-driving rhythms, slick dancers and Stiffe’s vocals.

So, is it hard to break the stereotypical image of the group? “This band is about the present. Audiences have moved on with us,” says Lynch. “When a producer like Kevin Crawford brings his talents to us, and we bring ours, the resulting sound and show, to us, is impressive.”

Audiences agree, judging by sell-out shows at venues like the National Concert Hall, Cork Opera House, Killarney’s INEC and festivals in Glastonbury, Milwaukee and the Lincoln Centre, New York.

Collaborations with a diverse range of song and dance artists, experimentation with a repertoire outside the céilí domain, the arrival of energetic new faces in the group, and band leader Lynch’s philosophy of “If you’re not moving, you’re not living” have catapulted The Kilfenora onto a new stage.

It’s one they’re not getting off anytime soon.

  • The Kilfenora Céilí Band band marks the launch of new album, Now Is The Hour, with a concert at National Concert Hall on March 16 as part of ESB Live 2015. The concert features special guest dancer Michael Donnellan and his Kickin Crew.
  • Other concert dates include: Cork Opera House, Saturday; Séamus Ennis Arts Centre, Naul, Co Dublin, Sunday; INEC, Killarney, March 22. www.kilfenoraceiliband.ie.

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