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Trad Beat ‘Underground’ tour wrap for Solas

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

SOLAS, Village Underground, 130 W. 3rd St., NYC. March 30.

Near the site of Greenwich Village’s long-defunct Folk City club, the Village Underground is a relatively new concert venue, like Joe’s Pub, that’s gaining some notoriety as a hip place to play in downtown Manhattan. Joan Osborne did a New Year’s Eve gig there, and soul-music pioneer Solomon Burke, a 2001 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recently performed at the Village Underground as well.

The first show by Solas two Fridays ago should add to this subterranean club’s growing prestige. With Steve Holloway on percussion and Chico Huff on electric bass, Solas toured the U.S. as a septet, providing a bigger, more rhythmic and robust sound closer to that heard on their latest Shanachie recording, "The Hour Before Dawn." This was the last date on their tour, and the band seemed energized to be performing in front of what was, for them, a home crowd.

A medley featuring "Brogan’s" jig had Kilkenny’s Mick McAuley cutting loose brilliantly on the button accordion, and he switched to piano accordion to complement the exquisite fiddling of Winifred Horan on a Norwegian slow air, "A Little Child." McAuley later topped himself on button box during "Dougie MacDonald’s/Maire Breatnach’s #2/The Antrim Rose/Atlantic Wave/Toss the Feathers," a rake of reels showcasing the individual instrumental strengths of Solas.

County Tipperary-born vocalist Deirdre Scanlan never sounded better in the band, singing "Bheadh Buachaillin Deas ag Sile" with confident gusto, "I Am a Maid That Sleeps in Love" artfully within the framework of McAuley’s and Seamus Egan’s supple low-whistle playing, and "When My Love and I Parted" with impassioned force.

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County Waterford-born Donal Clancy, who replaced John Doyle, has also found his comfort zone with Solas. Clancy played acoustic guitar with assured skill, and his harmonizing gave depth to Solas’s vocal delivery.

Where the band’s singing stumbled was in their wrongheaded arrangement of Julie Miller’s "I Still Cry," a song of wrenching, compactly expressed emotion that the composer recorded on her outstanding 1999 solo album "Broken Things." Solas treated the song as if it were an exercise in midtempo vocal harmony, trading its heartbreak for a flat, surface-pretty reading. It was the lone, painful clinker of the evening. Also, the backline boost of bass and percussion occasionally overwhelmed Scanlan’s singing, creating a blare that virtually buried her voice.

But the decision to go with a seven-piece lineup offering a lot more bottom-end oomph proved exciting to the audience. (Sharon Shannon’s addition of electric bass and percussion, also geared to catalyze the crowd, was far less successful ‘sthetically at her recent Symphony Space performance.) Volume and virtuosity aren’t easy musical bedfellows, but Solas demonstrated that the two aren’t mutually exclusive either. The band’s prodigious talent and strong sense of proportion made the experiment worthy and, in spots, wondrous.

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