By Earle Hitchner
How does an Irish traditional band know they’ve gained a measure of mainstream recognition and respect?
One way is to have a previously recorded reel, "The Flowing Bowl," appear in the soundtrack of "Soldier," a big-budget, sci-fi film starring Kurt Russell. Another way is to be the subject of a feature article (complete with lengthy annotated discography) in Billboard, a major music trade publication, this past Oct. 24. Still another way is to have "I Will Remember You," a song co-written by one of your founding members (Seamus Egan), played over the closing credits of the clinching World Series game victory by the New York Yankees on the Fox TV network this past Oct. 21. And still another way is to be scheduled for a Nov. 27th guest spot on Ireland’s most popular TV program, "The Late, Late Show," hosted by Gay Byrne.
Buzz? You bet. All of the above have happened or are going to happen
to Solas, whose new Shanachie album, "The Words That Remain," is providing
a tremendous boost to the international profile of the band. In a span of about three years, Solas have progressed from pubs and small clubs to theaters and festivals where they often headline. Their booking agency,
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International Music Network, handles a prestigious, diverse roster of artists — Altan, Mary Black, Joshua Redman, Wayne Shorter, Joe Lovano, Ellis Marsalis, Carlos Nunez — out of Gloucester, Mass. The growing day-to-day responsibility of fielding media calls for interviews and appearances has reached the point where the band is actively seeking formal management.
"We just need someone to coordinate all the things that are going on," said Seamus Egan, the band’s de facto manager, during a rare time-off recently. "We’ve toured an awful lot this year and finished up our third album in as many years."
Reaction to Solas in the United States has been red-hot since they first emerged, but now the rest of the world seems to be catching up.
"The last tour we did in Ireland was great," Egan said. "It was one of the better stretches of gigs we’ve ever had as a band. We’ve also played in England, Wales, and Spain, where we did four festivals in five days. The crowds in Spain were huge, all wildly enthusiastic. There’s a sense of joy and passion there. The people really get into the music."
Such quick success does breed its share of begrudgers and skeptics, but Solas is frankly too busy to notice or care about the naysayers that invariably form when an Irish band breaks through the shamrocks-and-shillelaghs barrier of public perception. It’s one reason why Shanachie released their new album on Oct. 20, not late February or early March. The message is clear: this is an Irish band whose music can and should be enjoyed year-round, not just on or near St. Patrick’s Day.
The band has achieved their success without artistic compromise or commercial kowtowing. Though critics (including this one) have noted a detectably greater American leaning — guests Béla Fleck and Iris De Ment, Woody Guthrie’s "Pastures of Plenty," Peggy Seeger’s "Song of Choice," Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll’s previously unrecorded "Up All Night" reel — on the new album than on the prior two, Solas themselves did not enter the studio with that as an objective.
"It’s kind of curious because it wasn’t a conscious thing at all," Egan said. "That was just the material we ended up thinking we could do something with. I don’t think any of us see a huge distinction between our first two albums and the new one. We’ve never tried to be different for the sake of being different. That’s just not our style."
In October 1997, Chicago button accordionist/concertinist John Williams was replaced by Kilkenny-born Mick McAuley, and the switch had some Solas aficionados concerned about how the sound and chemistry of the band might change, particularly in the chordal texture Williams added so deftly on the box. Those worries were immediately dispelled, however, by McAuley’s formidable, highly flexible talents on button accordion, concertina, and low whistle.
"Mick learned all of John’s parts and added some stuff of his own to them," Egan said. "Now he’s definitely feeling he’s fully in the group. Mick hasn’t even begun to do everything that he’s well able to do. He has the ability to sing lead, but it’s really his decision on how to proceed. To have John [Doyle] and Mick and Karan [Casey] as singers, with Win [Horan] doing some harmony, is a real plus for the band now."
Another Solas distinction is their willingness to do songs of challenging socio-political import rather than the mawkish ditties still glutting the Irish market. Besides "Pastures of Plenty" and "Song of Choice," Solas has performed Ewan MacColl’s "Ballad of Accounting" and Leon Rosselson’s "The World Turned Upside Down," and all four have become audience favorites.
"We’ve never dwelled on songs that might be considered peachy keen in content," Egan said. "They reflect the sensibilities of Karan and John. From an artistic point of view, they also give us more of a range to create balance, more of an emotional spectrum."
Two selections that Solas had been doing in concert before recording their new album were "Pastures of Plenty" and a medley of reels called "The Beauty Spot." This familiarity, however, did not breed ease in the studio.
"They were the most difficult for us to record because we had such a strong notion of what it was like playing them live," Egan recalled. "Tunes we had just learned or had been playing only a week beforehand — those we found far easier to sit down in the studio and record. It was the energy of the moment. We had no previous memory of doing them live, which was an advantage."
Perhaps no other Celtic band today has Solas’ breadth of talent and taste. Lead vocalist Karan Casey, for example, has been trained as a jazz singer, but apart from some sporadic solo performances in which she’s sung Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching classic "Strange Fruit" and one or two other jazz standards, she has yet to explore that side of her music with Solas.
And who could forget the stunning verse Casey sang from "Red River Valley," a traditional American folk song dating back to 1896, on Garrison Keillor’s "A Prairie Home Companion"? The old adage holds true: a great singer can sing practically anything.
Fiddler Win Horan brings to the band a classical-music pedigree from the New England Conservatory of Music, where John Medeski of the eclectic jazz-rock trio Medeski Martin & Wood was often her piano accompanist.
"I remember when he was living in a dive in Boston, barely paying the rent," Horan said, laughing, about Medeski, who was a year behind her at the conservatory. "He was always debating whether he wanted to do jazz or classical. He’s a monster classical pianist, just brilliant. We still talk to each other once or twice a year."
A close listen to "La Bruxa" on Solas’ new album reveals how well Horan, like Medeski, has integrated her classical chops into another musical genre without diluting either. No mean feat, it’s a credit to Horan’s overall strength and reputation as a fiddler.
So, would Solas ever branch out more from their Irish musical base, given the diverse capabilities of its members? "If at some point we came across a song that had a jazz feel to it, let’s say, and that Karan felt comfortable interpreting that way, we could do it," Egan said. "I don’t think everything we do has to sound Irish. As long as we all agree and the whole band’s stamp is on a song or tune, then we’d consider doing it, regardless of origin."
What about the future for Solas?
"I could see us down the road adding folks," Egan said. "The notion of percussion is appealing, for example. We had bass and keyboards on the new record, and at some point it might be nice to have all those elements on stage.
"But right now we want to do what we’re doing, the five of us, playing to different audiences and not repeating ourselves. We’re much looser as a band, more relaxed, and we’re having fun. We know we’ve been very fortunate."
Solas on tour
On Friday, Nov. 6, at 8 p.m. the band will be in a concert sponsored by the World Music Institute at Symphony Space, Broadway at 95th St., NYC. Call WMI at (212) 545-7536.
Other Solas concert dates include:
Oct. 30, E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, U. of Akron, Akron, Ohio (with Maura O’Connell); Nov. 4, Rockingham Theater, Harrisonburg, Va.; Nov. 5, the Birchmere, Alexandria, Va.; Nov. 7, Theater at Raritan Valley Community College, Somerville, N.J.; Nov. 8, Ram’s Head, Annapolis, Md.; Nov. 10, Spaulding Auditorium, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. (with Mary Black); Nov. 12, Koonz Theater, Manchester, N.H.; Nov. 13, 7 and 9:30 p.m., Iron Horse, Northampton, Mass.; Nov. 14, Symphony Hall, Boston (with Mary Black); Nov. 15, Gaelic American Club, Fairfield, Conn., and Nov. 16, Statler Auditorium, Cornell U., Ithaca, N.Y.