By Earle Hitchner
SOLAS, plus ANTJE. At the Village Underground, Greenwich Village, NYC. March
Buttressed by Chico Huff on electric bass and Steve Holloway on drums, Solas stuck mainly in this concert to the songs and tunes they recorded on their last two albums, “The Edge of Silence” and “The Hour Before Dawn.” That decision made sense, given the bolder direction the quintet have been heading in recently.
They haven’t abandoned their trad chops so much as supplement them with rock instrumentation (rhythm and percussion especially) and contemporary material (Bob Dylan, Tom Waits). In a sense, Solas performed this new material in an old way, relying on flute, fiddle, accordion, bouzouki, banjo, and whistle to carry the musical load. What’s different is the greater freedom they brought to their repertoire, opening it up to fresh, sometimes startling interpretations and arrangements.
“Beck Street,” a bracing uptempo tune written by Mick McAuley, featured a tricky, interlacing rhythm with a Middle Eastern strain running through it. “Charmy Chaplin,” composed by Winifred Horan and Seamus Egan, offered a fun, funky rhythm, shifting dynamics, and a lively, loping middle passage played by Egan on electric guitar.
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Solas’s sleek, sophisticated treatment of the Youngbloods’ hit song “Darkness, Darkness” had radio-friendly stamped all over it. But below the surface were an intriguing countermelody laid down by Horan’s fiddle and some challenging instrumental breaks from McAuley’s piano accordion and Egan’s electric guitar.
For all the careful, complex layering by this band, there was no waste, no fat, no guessing. Solas’s reach did not exceed their grasp. They knew the effects they wanted to achieve, and they achieved them with admirable single-mindedness, making them one of the most exciting and fascinating bands in any genre, Irish or otherwise.
Lead singer Deirdre Scanlan has reached a new level of comfort with Solas. Her vocal delivery retained its clarity but gained in cogency, conveying the emotion of a song like Tom Waits’s “Georgia Lee” with just the right combination of empathy and edge. Her delicate, adroit rendering of “Black Annis,” a song about sexual abuse that finds new currency in today’s headlines, explored its subject with pathos, not pathology. Like her predecessor in the band, Karan Casey, Scanlan “owned” the songs she sang, interpreting them in a way to make us all see what lies out of sight below.
Opening for Solas was Antje, a young German-born singer-songwriter who composed “Black Annis.” Armed with an acoustic guitar and assisted on two songs by Horan on fiddle, Antje often used imagery elliptically, letting the listener connect the dots in such original songs as “Lion
Master” and “Sirens.” She even transformed a travelogue song, “Long Way,” into something more poignant than a recitation of roadside attractions. Mere cataloging makes for meager content, and Antje, unlike so many of today’s folk singer-songwriters, understands the difference.
She’s a promising talent who will soon record a solo album with Solas’s Seamus Egan as producer.
— Earle Hitchner