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Solas: All These Years
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/10/2016)
The revival of interest in traditional Celtic music in this country has been going on for some 30 years or more, with the most prominent group in the initial revival being The Chieftains. Then the Celtic scene experienced something similar to what happened to bluegrass as it passed to a newer generation in the 1980s with the New Acoustic scene taking the instruments of bluegrass and creating interesting new, often jazz influenced music. In the late 1990s, a new breed of Celtic musicians began taking the style into new and often creative places. And the key group in that movement has been Solas. Formed in Philadelphia by Seamus Egan and Winifred Horan, the Irish-American group brought a new level of virtuosity to Celtic Music, and they were also not afraid to add a healthy dose of eclecticism, often incorporating music from unlikely sources such Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Over the years, the Solas personnel has varied with quite a few members passing through and a succession of female lead vocalists. Despite the rotating cast of characters, Egan has kept the band at a high level of musicianship. Now, at the twentieth anniversary of the formation of the group, Egan got together with all the former members for a new album, not redoing old songs but a collection of material that is new to the band. Of course some of it is centuries-old traditional music, but it’s material they have not formally recorded before.
The current lineup includes founding members multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and fiddler Winifred Horan along with Mick McAuley on accordion, Trevor Hutchinson on bass, guitarist Eamon McElholm, and vocalist Moira Smiley, who is known for her work with the alternative band the Tuneyards. They are joined by Solas founding members John Doyle on guitar, and John Williams on accordion, guitarist John Clancy and their various vocalists over the years,original singer Karan Casey plus Deirdre Scanlan, Mairead Phelan, Niamh Varian Barry and Noriana Kennedy. Not all perform at the same time; the album is arranged with different former members of the group appearing on different tracks. As usual, the level of musicianship is very high, and the group does some songs outside the regular traditional Celtic realm, such as the old Youngbloods song Darkness Darkness and a song by Patti Griffin, and there is a fair amount of new original material by the various members. The stylistic palette on the album is fairly broad and sometimes gets a little further away from the traditional Celtic sound the group is known for. But there’s plenty of material for diehard Celtic fans to enjoy.
The generous 68 minute, 16 track album begins with an original instrumental set of reels by Seamus Egan called Roarie Bummlers, which features the current personnel with the addition of bassist Trevor Hutchinson who adds a jazzy touch. The sound is typical of the outstanding level of playing that is Solas’ trademark. <<>>
The first of the vocals is a traditional piece called Standing on the Shore with Moira Smiley as singer. The song is given a more contemporary approach with a decidedly mellow sound, with Ms. Horan playing multiple fiddles to create a little string section. <<>>
Also with a laid-back sound is the traditional song Wandering Aengus with Noriana Kennedy doing the lead vocals. Solas gives the song more of an American bluegrass treatment than a Celtic sound, but it’s nicely done. <<>>
Not a song one would expect from a traditional Celtic group, but one that is typical of the eclectic nature of Solas is the Youngbloods 1969 hit Darkness Darkness. The group’s current vocalist Moira Smiley handles the singing. Except for some fiddle, there is not a lot of Celtic influence, though it is interesting to hear the song done in this acoustic manner. It is however, not Solas’ best cover version. <<>>
On the other hand, a traditional Irish separatist ballad, Padraig Og Mo Chroi sung by Deidre Scanlan is done as a ballad and very Irish in sound. <<>>
There are two tracks with founding vocalist Karan Casey which also feature guitarist John Doyle. The more memorable is a traditional song called Sixteen Come Next Sunday, which is done very nicely as a jig. <<>>
Another of the more memorable tracks on the album is the old song Willie Moore one of those tragic ballads of love and murder. Niamh Varian Berry is the vocalist while the band gives the song an appropriately traditional-sounding accompaniment. <<>>
The album ends with a pretty-sounding original instrumental waltz by Seamus Egan called All These Years, played by the two members of Solas who have been with the group for its whole duration, Egan on the piano and Ms. Horan on the violin. <<>>
All These Years, the new 20th anniversary album by the Irish-American Celtic band Solas is another fine recording by the group which has helped to move the traditional style into newer, more eclectic territory without going commercial or electric. The group’s high quality playing is evident throughout, and it’s interesting hearing the various women who have been vocalists with the group, changing from one track to another. The choice of material is also quite good, with the emphasis on the traditional, but two with pop covers and some worthwhile original material. It’s often hard to tell the original music from the traditional, which I think is a good thing. The album also has the feel of old friends getting back together to make music.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The acoustic instruments are well-recorded as are the vocals with a pleasing, warm, undistorted sound. There is some overdubbing, and parts of the recording were made with the added former members performing their parts in studios elsewhere from the Philadelphia center of this recording. The dynamic range is decent and definitely better than the hyper-compressed sound of even some acoustic albums these days.
For those of us who have been fans of Solas over the years, impressed with the way they have breathed new creative life into Celtic music, it’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years since they first started. Getting together with their former bandmates was an inspired thing to do and it makes for a very enjoyable album. Let’s hope that they keep at it for another 20 years.
(c) Copyright 2016 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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