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(Compass 4530 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/3/2010)
It was during the 1970s that the Chieftains began to attract international attention for traditional Celtic music, played on the instruments of the genre. Soon after that, a newer generation of Celtic musicians built on that and made their presence known on this side of the Atlantic. And like the so-called New Acoustic music scene in which an emerging cadre of very eclectic players took the instrumentation of bluegrass and went in a whole new stylistic direction, Celtic music also took a turn toward transmogrification. And the group most responsible for that third generation of Celtic revival was Solas. They formed in 1996, with members from both sides of the Atlantic. They brought a remarkable level of virtuosity to the sound, and were not afraid to play songs by Woodie Guthrie and even Tom Waits.
Solas was founded by Seamus Egan, who himself has lived on both sides of the Atlantic, and over the years, the personnel has gone through a number of changes. Violinist Winifred Horan is the only other original member with the group, though the band has remained in high esteem. Now, there are some further personnel changes on their new CD called The Turning Tide, with their third lead vocalist Mairead Phelan from Ireland, after the departure in 2008 of Dierdre Scanlan. Phelan is a good fit for the group's sound and approach.
Also over the years, Egan has released a series of solo albums which have tended toward the new age in sound. Recent Solas releases have also had a touch of the ethereal, but on the new CD, Solas have notched up the energy level and highlighted their great musicianship, while also spotlighting an interesting collection diverse material. I think it's their best, most substantial recording since their earliest days. And their eclecticism shows as they cover -- or rather re-invent -- songs by Bruce Springsteen, Richard Thompson and Josh Ritter among others. They also include some traditional material and some original instrumental tracks, which can themselves draw influences from such places as Eastern European music.
Like the best of Solas' recordings, The Turning Tide is about half virtuosic instrumentals and half songs. Ms. Phelan has her vocal own style and she tends to be a little lighter than her predecessors, but the music in unmistakably Solas. The rest of the current lineup includes accordionist Mick McCauley, who has been with the group since about 2002, and a more recent addition, guitarist Eamon McElholm. Egan, who as a youth won competitions in several instruments, is heard on guitar, banjo, mandolin, flute, whistles and percussion. The current lineup lacks a bagpiper. There are a few musical guests such as Philadelphia bassist Chico Huff and drummer Ben Wittman.
The CD gets under way in high gear, with a first-rate original instrumental by Seamus Egan called Hugo's Big Reel. The band shows it takes no prisoners in terms of their musicianship. <<>>
The first of the vocals is Solas' interpretation of the Richard Thompson's The Ditching Boy. The track is a nice fusion of Celtic with the sound of English folk. Vocalist Mairead Phelan rises to the occasion. <<>>
Fiddler Winifred Horan wrote a tune for their new vocalist, called Waltz for Mairead. It's one of those tunes whose influences are decidedly east of Ireland. <<>>
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the CD is Bruce Springsteen's Ghost of Tom Joad. The group notes that there is a tendency toward social commentary among the songs they included. Solas reinvents Springsteen's song and takes it to a new level. <<>>
Another song into which the state of the world enters is A Girl in the War, by Josh Ritter. It's one of the more musically laid-back on the CD, and a bit more like the band's more recent recordings. <<>>
Solas does include one old traditional song, A Sailor's Life. It's a highlight of the recording, combining a traditional sound with lots of interesting musical and instrumental touches. <<>>
Ironically, the best traditional-Irish sounding track on the CD is an original piece by Seamus Egan called Grady Fernando Comes to Town. It's the band in full-tilt virtuosity mode, with a great composition, to boot. <<>>
The CD ends with Seamus Egan in his New Age mode on an instrumental called A Tune for Roan. It's a pretty piece, but provides a lullaby to end the recording instead of going out with a high-energy jig or reel, which I would have liked to see. <<>>
The Turning Tide, the new CD by the much acclaimed Irish-American Celtic band Solas, is for me, the group's best CD in several years, ranking close to the recordings with their original personnel. Seamus Egan and company provide a very good mix of instrumental virtuosity and musical eclecticism, along with a selection of songs that can make some social commentary. Their new lead vocalist Mairead Phelan is a good fit for the band, adding her own gentle spin to the songs the band performs.
Our grade for audio quality is about a B-plus. The sound is clean and fairly warm, but as is so often the case, it's overly compressed. There seems to be a mortal fear, even among practitioners of acoustic music, of putting out a CD that is anything less than maximally loud all the time.
Seamus Egan has been leading Solas for nearly 15 years now, and while the personnel has changed over that period, the band has remained at the top of their game and one of the best Celtic groups in the world.
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