Solas
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Solas at its best
Veteran band plays traditional Irish-American music with a twist
Andrew Leahey
Friday, August 29, 2008

For nearly 15 years, Solas has been a leading light in the Irish-
American music scene. The storied band was formed in 1994 when
songwriter Seamus Egan pieced together a lineup of Celtic musicians
in New York City. One such musician was Winifred Horan, a fiddler who
has remained with Solas throughout the group's existence.

"It means a great deal to us that there is still interest in our music,"
Miss Horan says, noting the band's history of personnel shifts.
Although Mr. Egan and Miss Horan are the only founding members
remaining, she attributes Solas' vitality to the influx of new talent.

"Solas decided to move forward after each lineup change and look for
replacements that could add to the band's momentum at that
particular time," she says. "It is a constant source of inspiration. New
blood, new energy, new ideas, new styles; [it's] all part of the
process."

Solas' latest album, "For Love and Laughter," introduces one of the
band's strongest rosters to date. Flute, bodhran, fiddle and accordion
all figure prominently. Yet the album also takes a modern approach to
Irish dance music with the addition of vocalist Mairead Phelan.
Previously a medical student at Trinity College Dublin, Miss Phelan
shelved her studies to perform with the group.

"We are absolutely thrilled with her," Miss Horan enthuses. "She is a
constant source of new material and ideas, and her voice is beautiful.
She's also an accomplished pianist and flautist; loads of possibilities to
explore."

After almost 15 years and frequent changes in the lineup, Solas
continues to be a leading Irish-American band. Its latest album is "For
Love and Laughter."

"For Love and Laughter" explores some of those possibilities, mixing
traditional Irish covers with the band's own material. Instrumental
workouts such as "Vital Mental Medicine" enable the musicians to flex
their muscles, while "Mollai Na Gcuach NI Chuilleanain"and "Merry Go
Round" emphasize melodies and vocal harmonies. The Duhks, a
Canadian band specializing in eclectic world music, contribute to
several tracks.

Solas is scheduled to make two appearances at this weekend's Planet
Arlington World Music Festival, a cultural event that also will serve as
the band's CD release party. Afterward, the group will begin a national
tour in support of "For Love and Laughter,"with possible international
dates thereafter.

"Traveling the world with Solas has been one of the best things about
being in the band," Miss Horan says. "The reception we receive from
the audiences constantly amazes us. The farthest corners of the world
respond the same to the music; it truly is the 'universal language.'
Irish music, and good music in general, cannot seem to be lost in
translation."

• Solas performs an all-ages show tonight at 8 at Rosslyn Spectrum
Theatre. Tickets are $40 and include a catered post-concert reception
with the band. Solas returns to the area on Saturday afternoon for a
free concert at the Netherlands Carillon.

- Washington Times


SOLAS "For Love and Laughter" Compass
Friday, August 29, 2008; Page WE08
SOLAS"For Love and Laughter"Compass

SOLAS, a five-member Irish band, will take you back to
that bar you used to walk to in snowy Boston, the one
where unassuming Irish fiddlers played in the corner for
beer drinkers who scarcely noticed. Those musicians, like
Solas, performed with a gentle, calming lilt in the midst of
a brawling world.

Much of Solas's new release, "For Love and Laughter," is
instrumental, and this is where the band excels. The music
doesn't need words to tell a story, from the dark, sad and
beautiful "My Dream of You" highlighting piano and fiddle,
to the upbeat and fun "John Riordan's Heels/Hoban's White
House/The Lisnagun Jig" -- all one song that takes you on
a journey. Mandolin, guitar, banjo, low whistle, flute,
fiddle, viola, cello, accordion and bodhran . . . it's all the
instruments you would expect from an Irish band.

Where the band does use vocals, as on its poppiest tune, "Merry Go Round," with
Mairéad Phelan and guest vocalist Sarah Dugas, the sound is childlike; the
harmonies and lyrics are light and simple.

The CD's title is appropriate. "Sunday's Waltz" and "Tilly's Jig/The Happy Traveler"
sound like the music of lovers (intimate, yet playful), whereas "Eoin Bear's Reel/Tune
for Sharon/The Rossa Reel" has a fun, casual feel.

Whatever the tune, "For Love and Laughter" is music for a good friend and a good
ale. It should inspire you to leave your cares behind and just tap your foot.
-- Moira E. McLaughlin
- Washington Post


Solas scared the hell out of Ireland's traditional bands with the release of their self-titled debut album in 1996. Never before had an Irish traditional band from America challenged, right out of the gate, the best that Ireland had to offer.

Consider the convergence of talent on that CD: Seamus Egan, an All-Ireland champion on flute, mandolin, whistle, and banjo who made his own solo debut at age 16 and was still enjoying acclaim for scoring the music for "The Brothers McMullen" movie in 1995; Winifred Horan, a fiddler who is sometimes stupidly second-guessed for her trad chops because of her conservatory training but, in fact, is an All-Ireland fiddle champion with enviable trad ability buttressed by a singular gift for counterpoint, countermelody, and harmonic structure; John Williams, the only U.S.-born competitor ever to win the All-Ireland senior concertina title (1989) and a button accordionist who nimbly uses both hands, melody and bass, to create texture and nuance; John Doyle, an acoustic guitarist whose driving mix of rhythm and percussion is sui generis among string accompanists; and Karan Casey, whose stunning timbre, range, and interpretive skill, along with her passionate political convictions, vaulted her into the vanguard of active Irish singers.

The buzz on Solas had grown from the year before, after Egan, Horan, Doyle, Williams, and Casey decided to form a band. The potential for something special from these three Irish American (Egan, Horan, Williams) and two Irish immigrant musicians (Casey, Doyle) was obvious, though no one had expected a recording debut of that magnitude.

It was a sensational, spellbinding album, representing a stateside achievement that could be uttered in the same breath as Planxty's debut in 1972 and the Bothy Band's debut in 1975 without getting laughed out of the room.

>From the dynamic opener of "Nil Na La" to the inventive last track of "Timmy Clifford's/The Return Home/Oo't Be Est Da Vong/John Joe Casey's," the unique, multi-layered sound of Solas packed finesse within fire and fire within finesse. Slow airs such as "Crested Hens" and "Lament for Frankie" pulsed with vitality beneath an outer shimmer of beauty. Hard-charging dance medleys such as "The Flowing Bowl/Maire Breatnach's #1/The Doon/The Mason's Men" and "Dougie MacDonald's/Maire Breatnach's #2/The Antrim Rose/Atlantic Wave/Toss the Feathers" contained playing of pointillist delicacy. Topping it all off was the voice of Casey, whose singing of five songs brought the recording to a higher, richer level still.

A bona fide modern classic, "Solas" was pinch-me music for listeners and became a badge of national pride for Irish trad music made in America. (Disclosure: I wrote a short essay for the CD insert.)

The next two albums by Solas, "Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers" in 1997 and "The Words That Remain" in 1998, only strengthened the all-important first impression the quintet made in 1996. During this three-year period, Solas won three consecutive indie album awards and was arguably the best Irish traditional band not just in America but on the planet.

Personnel changes began after the second album with the departure of Williams, who was replaced by Kilkenny-born Mick McAuley. That lineup shift was followed after the third album by the departure of Casey, who was replaced by Tipperary-born singer Deirdre Scanlan. Doyle left after the fourth album, "The Hour Before Dawn," and was replaced by Waterford's Donal Clancy. Clancy, in turn, departed after the genre-stretching fifth album, "The Edge of Silence," and was replaced by Tyrone-born Eamon McElholm. Since 2003, Solas has issued two more albums, "Another Day" and "Waiting for an Echo," with the same lineup: Egan, Horan, McAuley, Scanlan, and McElholm.

In fairness to the replacements, it isn't easy coming into Solas after the seismic impact created by the original lineup. For historical perspective, recall that Paul Brady, a superb singer, replaced Christy Moore in Planxty, and Kevin Burke, a superb fiddler, replaced Tommy Peoples in the Bothy Band. At the time, not all devotees of those two groups were happy with the transitions, and the same was true for Solas. It has little to do with actual ability; it has everything to do with fans' psychic loyalty to whoever or whatever first claimed their hearts.

Against that backdrop, "Reunion: A Decade of Solas," the band's initial release for Compass after leaving Shanachie, is all the more extraordinary. No camphor whiff of nostalgia, no spidery cobwebs of past glory, and no lingering uneasiness from "split" decisions mar this spectacular, live-performance, CD and DVD package featuring all the members of Solas from 1996 to today. It is high quality (melodic subtleties and all rhythmic threads can be readily distinguished) and high quantity (76 minutes on CD, 2 hours 15 minutes on DVD) all rolled together. The performances heard on the CD and seen on the DVD show past and - The Irish Echo (Earle Hitchner)


Discography

For Love and Laughter (2008)
Reunion: A Decade of Solas (2006)
Waiting For An Echo (2005)
Another Day (2003)
Edge of Silence (2002)
The Hour Before Dawn (2000)
The Words That Remain (1998)
Sunny Spells & Scattered Showers (1997)
Solas (1996)

Photos

Bio

Solas stepped out onto the world stage in 1996, when Irish music was poised at the brink of a new era of innovation and popularity. The five young musicians who made up the band at the time had no idea that they were to be a galvanizing element in the Irish music scene -- a lightening rod of talent and inspiration that set new standards for musicianship, repertoire, and intensity. "We thought we were doing a one-off project," says multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan with a smile, ten years after the fact. Egan and fiddler Winifred Horan have remained with the band through a decade that has encompassed seven albums, a series of evolving lineups, endless international touring and critical acclaim.

"When we made the first record," Egan recalls, "there was no plan to make a second. But there was such a positive reaction -- we were as surprised as anyone." Almost instantly, the band's refreshing take on traditional Irish music won them accolades the world over. Unrelentingly hard-driving, yet tightly arranged and precise, Solas took an ancient music and made it contemporary. Vocal numbers -- initially featuring singer Karan Casey, and subsequently Deirdre Scanlan -- were delicate and vulnerable, yet underpinned by steely determination. Their willingness to marry tradition with innovation and push ahead made them a beacon to both audiences and their fellow musicians.

The band's demanding schedule of recording and performing left little time for Egan and his cohorts to reflect on what they had accomplished. "We always have to be able to move on quickly," Egan explains. "We have so many commitments. If we had more time to think about what we'd been through or what we're facing at any given moment, we may stay home in bed with the lights off and never leave the house." Yet an offhand remark heard on tour last year prompted the discussions that lead to what eventually became Reunion: A Decade of Solas. "Someone said, "Oh, by the way next year it will be ten years,"" Egan remembers. "That set the wheels in motion, and by the end of the tour we decided to maybe put on a concert to celebrate. But we then asked ourselves, why stop there? We decided to see if the past members were interested in coming back."

Much to the band's delight, past Solas members such as vocalist Karan Casey, guitarist John Doyle, guitarist Donal Clancy, and accordionist John Williams were also intrigued by the notion. "From then," Egan says, "the hardest thing was just getting everyone in one place. It took two or four months just to nail down the time and place for it. It was logistically difficult to corral, but it was worth it."

The concept for the band's tenth anniversary celebration was, on paper, quite simple: to reunite as many past Solas lineups as possible to cover the widest breadth of Solas repertoire ever attempted in one concert. "We started writing out lists of material and lineups from over the years, and what material represented each lineup best," Egan explains, "Then we had to think about what worked as a show. We didn't just want to recreate old versions of Solas -- we also wanted to combine lineups, too, which for ourselves and our fans was fun. We wanted to hear what it would be like to have Karan singing harmony on something Deidre sang, or vice versa. We don't have a chance to do this very often!"

The band chose to hold the concert in Philadelphia. "We needed to do this on familiar turf," says Egan, "and a lot of the history of the band is in Philadelphia. Most of our records were made here. I had moved back five years ago and it became a home base for the band. And a lot of the folks we've worked with over the years were here." With a date and location in place and the songs selected, the band had only a brief time to rehearse nearly three hours of music. "We had two days -- not even two full days. Some folks were only there for one day. But there was a fair bit of work done beforehand, and a clear idea of what we needed."

Joining the past and current lineups of Solas were several Philadelphia-based musicians who had appeared on the band's recordings over the years. "It was great to play with the support musicians that we recorded with -- Ben Wittman, Chico Huff, John Anthony and Michael Aharon," says Egan. "We have not really had a chance to play live with them on an ongoing basis, and they helped us pull this show off."

"We worked up twenty-five or twenty-six pieces of music," Egan continues, "many of which hadn't been played in ten years. It could have been a disaster. If we had had time, we could have thought of all the things that could go wrong -- thankfully we didn't! Almost everything that happened that night is on either the CD or the DVD."

The performance that night was captured on film and tape, and will be released by Compass Records in the Spring of 2006 as Reunion: A Decade of Solas. The performances are joyous, with the youthful intensity of ten years prior made all the more powerful by