Mojo magazine called them "the new gods of Irish music." And the New York Times dubbed LÃºnasa the hottest acoustic Irish band on the planet.
But it's a sure thing that, on this particular day, those words of praise wouldn't buoy Cillian Vallely. The Uillean piper and low-whistle player just had his Toyota SUV towed from the mean streets of New York City.
"It's a nightmare," Vallely said over the phone, not long before Hurricane Sandy struck his adopted hometown.
"It was one of the companies with the big, muscled, tattooed heavy guys. These guys wanted cash."
Unfortunately, the musician was short of money at the time.
"And I'm supposed to go teach in the Catskills this weekend," he moaned.
Tonight's LÃºnasa concert in Victoria is cause for celebration amongst fans of Irish music. What makes the band unusual, said Vallely, is the dynamism of the rhythm section. Traditional Irish bands usually don't feature a double-bass, which in LÃºnasa is played by Trevor Hutchinson, formerly of the Waterboys, a Celtic folk-rock outfit from Scotland.
"It's not just the string bass," Vallely said. "It's the way it's used in conjunction with the guitar. It's the style of the rhythm section. Especially when we started, it was different from any band before it."
The rhythm-happy results, grafted onto inventive arrangements, have been compared to contemporary bluegrass artists such as jazz-influenced banjo player Bela Fleck.
Vallely's use of the Irish low whistle also adds to LÃºnasa's distinctive sound.
Named after an ancient Gaelic festival, LÃºnasa started in 1996 as a trio. Val-lely joined in 1999, and the quintet went from part to full time.
Vallely hails from the small town of Armagh in Northern Ireland. He was born to a musical family.
His father was a piper, while his mother played the fiddle. They ran the Armagh Pipers Club, a music school.
"I grew up playing. One of those things where you don't remember actually starting. I feel like I always played," Vallely said.
He was playing casual paid gigs by his early twenties. These came increasingly frequently, allowing him to avoid "a real job."
Asked when he become a professional musician, Vallely seemed genuinely perplexed.
"If people ask and you don't actually do anything else, then it is full time," he said with a chuckle. "I didn't think much about it. I suppose I don't know what I would've done if I didn't join a band."
LÃºnasa often plays festivals in North America, typically undertaking half a dozen tours a year. Cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago boast large Irish-American populations.
Some events are more fun to play than others, Vallely said. Less appealing are "Irish day" type extravaganzas, which might feature green beer for the adults and bouncy castles/face-painting for the kids. At such celebrations, patrons yell out requests for sing-along tunes such as The Wild Rover (the Irish equivalent of demanding In the Mood at a jazz concert).
Vallely prefers dedicated folk or bluegrass festivals.
"Those audiences are there for the music," he said. "They're following the bands."
LÃºnasa plays its home country less than one might imagine, just four or five shows annually. In Ireland, said Vallely, traditional Irish music still flourishes. But it's mostly in the pubs - where you don't have to pay admission.
"A lot of people like Irish music in Ireland," he said.
"But they wouldn't necessarily buy a ticket to go and see it."
© Copyright 2013