Love, Laughter and Solas

Irish trad band Solas

By Ian Worpole
December / January 2009

Ian Worpole talks to Solas stalwarts Seamus Egan and Winifred Horan, and meets the band’s newest member, Mairéad Phelan.

As I’ve mentioned in past columns, Irish-American legends Solas are probably the most lauded of all Celtic bands out there today, and quite right too. Now in their second decade, and with an exciting new singer, Mairéad Phelan, the band has a scorching new album, For Love and Laughter, and are in the midst of an ambitious tour of the U.S., England and Ireland.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Solas – the virtuoso multi-instrumentalism of  Seamus Egan, shifting effortlessly from Nylon-string guitar to banjo, mandolin, flute and whistle, or the gale force that is Winifred Horan’s fiddle, ripping through every live set as though it may be her last, while taking a breather to write exquisitely beautiful melodies such as “My Dream of You.” Mick McCauley on button accordion and Eamon McElholm on guitar provide a driving percussive rhythm and counterpoint melodies, and the whole band contributes the best of original tunes and songs; on the new CD various guests such as The Duhks and cellist Natalie Haas all add to the magic, along with dynamo bass-player Chico Huff, who is usually on the road with the whole gang.

Compass Records founder Alison Brown says of the band: “In addition to being great crowd pleasers, Solas are musicians’ musicians. You would be hard pressed to find a tighter, more powerful band. Their compositions and arrangements are a great inspiration to me personally. And getting to work with them on Compass Records is a dream come true for us.” And another fine band, Beoga, says of their peers: “Solas are what every Irish band should aspire to be. Their music is a class above the rest.”

Now that the heady days of Riverdance are starting to fade, Irish music tends to fall into two categories – the somewhat packaged, soulful, nostalgia-tinged Celtic Woman style, nothing wrong with that, and the driven acoustic band style that began to evolve in the sixties with the likes of the Bothy Band, DeDannan and Planxty, and which Solas has since made its own. For some bands, the songs are secondary to the tunes, and it shows, but the great strength of Solas is their melding of song and instrumental virtuosity – they attack the vocals and their accompaniment with as much relish as the tunes.

Past singers include Karan Casey and Deirdre Scanlon (and if you missed the Decade release, which includes a live DVD of a ten-year reunion concert of all past band members including John Doyle and John Williams, it is essential listening!).

Now Mairéad Phelan has stepped up to the plate, with some glorious tracks on the new CD, my personal favorites being the traditional “Seven Curses” and  Rickie Lee Jones’ “Sailor Song.” I had a chance to talk with Mairéad, Winifred and Seamus after a concert at the Sullivan Theatre in NYC this past September:

Mairéad, tell us about yourself.
You mean talk about me? Oh, right. Well, I’m from a small town, Lisdowney, in Co. Kilkenny, and like most Irish children I started playing the tin whistle when I was six or seven. My family were all great singers as well, so that rubbed off on me, I started getting interested in singing the old songs when I was eleven or twelve. When I was about sixteen I was with a group of friends, we traveled around having fun, but we were never anything professional. I started studying medicine and then the Solas thing came along.

So how did that all come about?
I’d met Mick (McCauley) at a session in Ireland, and about a year later he called me to say the band was auditioning for a new singer, and I should send a tape, so I did. I never heard back for a while so I thought, well that’s that, but then I got a call to come and try out, and the next thing I know I’m in the band, and medicine is on hold.

It must be quite something having these guys backing you up.
I’m still pinching myself! I can’t believe it’s happening. I came over in April and joined the band in Philadelphia, where they were recording the new album, so that’s when we sorted out the songs I would sing. Then we did a short tour of the West Coast, then a couple of weeks in England.

Are audiences pretty much the same here and there?
Well, this music is pretty much a specialized genre that audiences know, and that’s what they come for, so yes, so far it’s pretty much the same reception. They love it!

Have you met Karan and Deirdre? Everyone still gets along?
I’ve met Karan [Casey], we sang together at one event, but I missed Deirdre [Scanlon]. Everyone gets along great, they’ve been wonderful.

At this point, Winifred Horan and Seamus Egan joined us, congratulating Mairéad on the evening’s performance. “Awesome!” said Winifred.

Winifred, you’ve been at this a bit longer than Mairéad . . . does the thrill ever wear off?
Funny you should ask. Mike Harding [check out the BBC’s British folk disc jockey on the Mike Harding Show at www.bbc.co.uk] just asked the same question, and I have to say, No! Sure we get tired physically, but once we’re up on that stage, if the thrill of playing ever wore off, I’d pack it in.

Any thoughts on the band right now?
Well, I do think of us as what I’d call an acoustic band rather than say a Celtic band these days–some folk, bluegrass, even jazz, gets in there, and I think that’s what our audience comes to listen to, rather than just strictly traditional Irish. So we’re touring for a few months with the new CD, then we’ll probably start on the next album around February. We did something like seven albums for Shanachie and now we’re with Compass. They’re both very good to us, but as much as anything we’re a touring band, so it’s just as well the thrill’s still there.

Seamus, what parts of the States, besides the big cities of course, do you get good audiences?
They like us around Madison, Minneapolis, that part of the Midwest, and the Northeast is great too. Seattle, Portland, all around there. And speaking of audiences, I do feel there’s something special about Ireland – it’s almost a telepathic connection, they know the music so well. We’ve been touring more in Europe lately, which is great – Italy, Germany; some of the Festival gigs in Spain have been insane, just great, wild audiences.

What do you yourself have lined up after this tour?
Well, we finish up in Liverpool at the Irish Festival there in early November, then I’ll be starting on a new solo album. We’ll be doing the Boston Christmas Festival again this year. I’ll be musical director again, that’s a lot of fun.

And how is Mairéad fitting in?
She’s an absolute joy to have around, she’s fitting in great, after being thrown in at the deep end! And she’s a great musician as well – she plays flute, so we’re trying to figure out how to fit more of that in so we can integrate the whole song/tune thing even more.

Many thanks, guys, and keep up the good work!

For more on the band, go to: www.solasmusic.com.

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