Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Ireland and Irish America: twenty years of Solas and music

Twenty years ago. Think back a moment to where you were and what you were doing -- and how the past two decades have unfolded. Changes will be a constant, no doubt, whatever area of life draws your attention with these thoughts.

That has been true for the band Solas, too. When flute and banjo player Seamus Egan, guitarist John Doyle, fiddle player Winifred Horan and singer Karan Casey brought their varied backgrounds of in Irish music together in New York City in the mid 1990s, they were each working on other projects. They knew they liked the sound they were creating together, though, a sound which, both lyrically and melodically, drew on their experiences in both Ireland and North America. They knew they wanted to share what they were creating with wider audiences, too -- what they did not know is that they were at the start of becoming one of the most celebrated and influential groups in working in the music of Ireland and Irish America.

They decided to call themselves Solas, which means light in Irish. That’s been a true name, one that ties into the energy with which they present their music and the discoveries they make in it and share with their listeners. Miles and miles and decades of world tours, band members coming and going, gigs in world class venues, awards, recognitions, road songs and road stories by the thousands learned and told, and it turns out they have been at sharing this music for twenty years. How to mark that milestone with a recording?

Founding members Horan and Egan, longtime cohorts Eamon McElholm on guitar and piano and Mick McAuley on accordion, and most recent member singer Moira Smiley didn’t want to do a retrospective, exactly. They did want to honor and include past band members as well as give the nod to the continuing and evolving nature of the sound they create now.

All These Years is the result. It is a sixteen track journey that moves from high energy jigs and reels to graceful slower pieces, from songs that come from the tradition to newer songs from writers including Martha Scanlon and Patty Griffin, and music written by members of the band as well.

Song and tune alike, there’s connection and creation evident between the players and the singers, and stories told as thoughtfully through tune as through song. Past members of the band were able to join in, too, adding and recalling their own distinct contributions to sound and story. Doyle and Casey are part of the project, as are former band members Donal Clancy, Johnny B. Connolly, John Williams, Mairead Phelan, Deirdre Scanlon, Noriana Kennedy, and Niamh Varian-Berry. Long time collaborators Chico Huff, Trevor Hutchinson, and John Anthony sit in too.

If you have been walking the music road with me for a time, many of those names and the music they make will be well known to you. Whether or not that is the case, what they have gathered to create with All These Years is indeed music which looks both back and forward, honoring the band’s past while standing brightly in the present and looking toward the future.

Each of the tracks is well worth your time, and well worth more than one listening. It is also a project that will benefit from being heard in the order in which the artists have designed it for you. Especially take note of Wandering Aengus, with Noriana Kennedy as the singer and a really interesting musical framework for her singing, Winifred Horan’s quiet composition, a waltz called Lost in Quimper, Moira Smiley’s take on the traditional song As I Went out Walking, Niamh Varian-Berry and Karan casey leading things on two rather different songs from the tradition, Willie Moore and Sixteen Come Next Sunday respectively, and Horan on fiddle and Egan on piano on the closer, Egan’s title track All These Years. In fact, if you’ve only time for one track, listen to that last one -- and then you will want to hear all the others, too.

At Celtic Connections in Glasgow this winter, there was a CD release concert at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. All the musicians on the recording got to be there, as well as several other unexpected guests. I was fortunate to be there, and that is where most of these photographs were made.

Band photograph courtesy of the artists. Performance photographs of Seamus Egan, Moira Smiley, Winifred Horan (with Moira Smiley in the background), and Karan Casey with Donal Clancy by Kerry Dexter, made at Celtic Connections with permission of the festival, the artists, and the venue involved. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Solas:Shamrock City
Exiles Return: Karan Casey and John Doyle
Ireland's music: Danu: Buan

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