By Earle Hitchner
A gifted singer from Ballyduff Lower, Co. Waterford, Karan Casey recently announced her departure from Solas. "I left because I felt I was touring too much," Casey said from Cork City, where she lives. "It just got too intense for me."
The break was completely amicable, she adds. "It was a very hard decision for me," Casey said. "Being with the band was brilliant musically and personally. I didn’t think I’d ever get to travel around so much and have so much craic. I spent so much time and effort with Solas on every level, and I have very fond memories. They’re fantastic musicians and people. If I had to do it all over again, I would — and in the same way."
Since 1994, the year she joined the band, Casey has recorded three albums and a concert video with them for Shanachie Entertainment. She also has a 1997 solo release on Shanachie that features three other members of Solas: fiddler Winifred Horan, guitarist John Doyle, and multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, who produced the album.
"There’s a great deal of respect, and always has been, for everyone in the band," said Winifred Horan, affirming Casey’s sentiments from her home in Manhattan. "We were disappointed in Karan’s decision, but we’re still friends, we still talk on the phone. We wish her nothing but the best, and we know she wishes the same for us."
Cindy Byram, director of publicity for Shanachie, also expressed some disappointment over Casey’s decision but emphasized the label’s dedication to the band. "Shanachie’s belief in and commitment to Solas are unwavering. I’ve been in the record business for almost 20 years, and I know that Solas has the right stuff to deal with whatever fate throws their way. We feel confident that they will go on as they have, from strength to strength, and we will do everything we can to help ensure that."
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The band’s own resolve is greater than ever. "We’re 100-percent committed to going forward," Horan said. "We will fulfill all of our commitments and beyond. This hasn’t weakened us. We worked too hard to get to this point."
Certainly, there’s plenty of precedent to go forward, as the one constant among Irish traditional music bands is change. The Chieftains, De Dannan, Altan, Cherish the Ladies, Boys of the Lough, Sharon Shannon Band, Patrick Street: they have all undergone significant shifts in personnel during their tenure. And they have all maintained their success or increased it.
Solas, an American-based band that has risen to the top ranks of their profession in less than five years, is no exception. Talented Chicago-born box player John Williams left Solas less than two years ago to devote more time to his wife and three young children. He was replaced by Mick McAuley, a box player from Callan, Co. Kilkenny, who has been an ideal fit for the band, bringing with him outstanding performance skills and fresh musical input, including original compositions.
McAuley’s impact can be heard on Solas’ last album, "The Words That Remain," where he wrote or co-wrote three tunes. It is the biggest-selling recording to date for the band and is a nominee for best album in the Celtic/British Isles category of the Association for Independent Music (AFIM, formerly NAIRD), which will be announcing the winner this May 22 in Atlanta. The band’s previous recordings, "Solas" and "Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers," copped the top prize at AFIM over the last two years.
All three Shanachie albums by Solas have sold exceptionally well, each charting on Billboard’s "Top World Music Albums" list, and all three finished first or, in one instance, tied for first in the Irish Echo’s annual top-10 list of traditional albums. Last year, the band also took two separate honors in the readers’ poll of Dublin-based Irish Music magazine: "best traditional album" and "best overseas traditional act." Both in America and in Ireland, they are rightly regarded as one of the most accomplished and exciting Irish traditional groups to emerge in decades.
When Karan Casey informed the band that she’d be leaving them, the remaining members of Horan, McAuley, Egan, and Doyle began their search for a new lead vocalist. They listened to various tapes, and both McAuley and Doyle also looked for possible singers in Ireland.
No permanent replacement has been made by Solas, but they have agreed on bringing out with them for the upcoming summer tour a guest vocalist, Sheila O’Leary, who’s from Rathmore, Co. Kerry, and has been living in New York City off and on for several years. O’Leary will be Solas’ guest on tour from May 20 through the end of July.
"We’ve always been of the mind that Solas has to be the first priority for any member in it," Horan said. "Outside gigs and tour opportunities have to be fitted around that. This is what we do. We’re musicians, and we play. Right now we have commitments well into the year 2000, and we certainly plan on having a singer with us for those dates."
Horan also acknowledged the mutability that seems to follow groups, no matter how long they’ve been together. "Irish traditional bands are notorious for these kinds of changes," she said. "It’s a fact. It’s hard to keep any band together. When John Williams left, it was a decision based on his life, and we respected that. Mick came in, and the chemistry was great."
That same chemistry, as important to a band as sheer musical skill, is what Solas is seeking from a new singer, and the band prides itself on its democratic decision-making, with equal weight given to each member. Case in point: founding member Seamus Egan. Even with his high-profile success as music scorer for the hit 1995 film "The Brothers McMullen," he insisted that references to the band be "Solas," not "Solas featuring Seamus Egan." All four members will have to agree on the replacement singer so that the celebrated chemistry of their stage and studio performances remains strong.
A test of any band’s resiliency and durability is change. Weaker groups often wither, their shallow roots blown away by the slightest unexpected gust. But the strong internal chemistry, backing of their record label, and loyalty of their growing fan base should keep Solas anchored and thriving.