The folks at The Ark sent me a CD the other day, suggesting that I give it a listen. For their suggestion, I thank them. Solas is a new traditional Irish band, but unlike the likes of other formidable Irish troupes like Altan, The Chieftains and Trian, this ensemble is largely American. Featuring Irish Americans: John Williams on button accordion, Winifred Horan on fiddle, and multi-instrumentalist virtuoso Seamus Egan plus Irish players, guitarist John Doyle and vocalist Karan Casey . As an ensemble they are wonderful. Traditional Irish music ensembles often blend the sounds of traditional acoustic instruments like the tin whistle, fiddle, flute and guitar with accessiblemelodies and fast step-dance rhythms. Given the long tradition in American culture of this combination long heard in thereels, square dances and 19th-century melodies of Stephen Foster and others, Americans are generally quite aware of the sounds and energy of this music. In fact there are quite a few Celticfolk musicians in Ann Arbor wbo regularly attend Celtic music shows at the Ark and often search each other out to play their own brand of traditional Irish music where they can. But what separates these dedicated amateurs from groups like Solas is a sense of the ensemble. Exceptional Irish music is truly greater than its parts. The music of Solas clearly shows this. Although each mem her bas exceptional talent, it is when the music grows, showing us deep textures and marvelous innovations, billowing out beyond the seams of each musician, that we listeners get that chili upour spine like a winter fog over the river Shannon. And on virtually every tune on Solas' first recording we get that chili. The recording opens with a rollicking drinking song: "Nil 'Na La." The melody and rhythm is slightly tipsy. Although sung in Gaelic, the refrain compels the listener to sing along, toasting to the wonderful Irish spirit "The Flowing Bowl" is an infectious reel. The interplay between Williams' accordion and Egan's whistle is driving and expansive - a wild toetapper. The slow melodie jig - "The White Petticoat" - is gorgeous. Perhaps one of the prettiest melodies on the recording, this tune gentlymovesthelistenerforwardthrougharoundlike progression led by the guitar and fiddle. Traditional Irish song is neverbetter than on "I Wonder What's Keeping My True Love Tonight." Karan Casey's vocals are soaring and expressive. Through herdelivery of the sad lyrics, we feel the angst in the relationship between these distant lovers. The accompaniment is&ubdued yet supportive, enhancing the melancholy of this traditional tune. "The Yellow Tinker" probably highlights the uniqueness of Solas. There is a real contemporary feel to this reel. It lies in John DoyJeV guitar playing. The rhythm he uses takesmore from rock sensitivities than traditional Irish music. It resembles how Edge of U-2 might sound if he played an acoustic guitar with the Chieftains. The deep roots of Irish traditions are still there but the accents, the syncopation is slightly more rockin'. The impact doesn't distract as much as it makes the listener want to figure out what makes this tune so wonderfully different. Winifred Horan's fiddle playing is highlighted on the beautiful "Crested Hens." This familiar tune clearly demonstrates the Irish roots of this ensemble. The melody flows and projects an image of Ireland: a land deep in tradition and sullenness. This tune - or perhaps the haunting "MyJohnny'sGoneforaSoldier" - might be the strongest on the recording. The reel - "Dougie MacDonalds" - is a virtuoso piece. The interplay between all the musicians is exquisite. The tune builds in dynamic and energy practically forcing the listener to dance and whirl across the room. Particularly strong is SeamusEgan'sfluteplayingand Winifred Horan's fiddling; they're lightning quick. The melismatic voice of Karan Casey is capably demonstrated on John Doy le' s contemporary arrangement of "Newry Town." This tune sounds newer and fresher than its 18th-century origins. Similarly the jig "Gan AinmThe Humours of Whiskey" has a modern feel to it. Again it is through Doy le's guitar playing that this is accomplished. "Sliabh Geal Gcua Na Feile" is sung entirely in Gaelic. The melody aptly frames this Welsh Irish mining song. "Lament for Frankie" is a dirge-like melody performed on the Uillean pipes and fiddle - a real tear-jerker. The finale combines a number of jigs and reels into one extended play. "Timmy CliffordsThe Return HomeO'ot Be Est Da VongJohn Joe Caseys" combines the best of this ensemble. The melody is finelyjuxtaposedoveradrivingrhythm. The harmonies are consistent with the Irish traditions and the energy is head-bobbing. It is an excellent way to end this exceptional recording. If your music library lacks some Irish music I highly recommend this recording. Solas' will be coming to The Ark on Wed., Oct. 9. 1 hope to see y ou there!
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