To be perfectly frank, this year has seemed like one long, unplanned suspension of time on so many fronts. So it seems reasonable to highlight a band this week that has been on an indefinite hiatus since 2017. What’s a little time off among friends, right?
When featuring their version of the spooky tune An Unquiet Grave in my Halloween Soundtrack, I mentioned that Solas was my favorite Irish band. Today I want to go deeper into why this ensemble is so loved by those of us hoping that they find time in the future for another reunion tour, at the least.
Solas — whose name is an Irish word for “sun” — began as a “one-off” project in 1996 by five talented and fairly well-known musicians in the roots music world. This was at a time when Irish music was poised to build upon its traditional base and move into new directions, and no one did it better than Solas. I was fortunate to hear the band live early in their career. The skillful interplay of melody lines supported by unflagging energy was there right from the beginning, as can be seen first on this instrumental medley and then in The Stride Set from the album The Words That Remain, with guest banjoist Bela Fleck. Enjoy the dual banjo interplay in The Stride Set beginning at the 2:57 mark.
While all of the musicians who have come through the band are top-flight, six early members stand out for me. First, guitarist John Doyle from Dublin is the most amazing rhythm guitar player in Irish and roots music today. You see that in the first video above, and you can hear it in all his music with the band, in duets, and solo. I’m going to feature John in an upcoming Soundtrack so you can focus on his guitar playing and songwriting, both of which are exceptional.
Winifred Horan is an American fiddler with Irish roots who began her career in 1990 in the all-female Irish band Cherish the Ladies before helping to form Solas. Born in New York City to Irish parents, she studied piano (taught by her father, a carpenter and musician) and Irish fiddle playing at a young age. Horan attended and graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where she studied classical violin. Her percussive style fits perfectly with the band and — along with Doyle’s guitar — propels some of their best-loved songs, such as the Irish-reworking of the Woody Guthrie classic Pastures of Plenty, shown here from the band’s 2006 10-year reunion concert in Philly.
Multi-instrumentalists John Williams and Mick McAuley have both held down the accordion chair in Solas, Williams for the band’s first two albums and then McAuley beginning with the third album The Words That Remain. McAuley plays traditional and original Irish music on accordion, melodeon, whistle and guitars. In 2006, McAuley and Horan released a duo album entitled Serenade, which includes the most beautiful and mystical cover ever of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush.
Seamus Egan began his musical career as an Irish music teenage prodigy before he co-founded Solas with his other bandmates. A multi-instrumentalist, Egan regularly plays the Irish flute, tenor banjo, guitar, mandolin, tin whistle, and low whistle. As one of the members to stay with the band through its two decade run, Egan has helped take Solas into new territory, with musical guests like the Canadian band The Duhks on the For Love and Laughter album, and as on this version of Lay Your Money Down with the incomparable Rhiannon Giddens.
Original lead vocalist Karen Casey began her musical career as a jazz singer from Dublin before joining Solas for the band’s first four years. This beautiful version of Reasonland gives you the chance to hear Casey as well as other lead singers from the band, including Dierdra Scanlan who begins the tune.
The Reunion: A Decade of Solas CD on Compass Records from 2006 is well worth the download. Recorded and filmed in Philadelphia, it features all current and past members of the group. We’ll end this celebration with the rousing version of Nil Na La from that concert. Have a roll around the blankets and enjoy!
More to come…
Image: Cover of the For Love and Laughter CD