Celtic folk group
After playing only a few live shows, it seemed likely to fans that Solas would surpass the popularity of other contemporary Irish folk groups. The extensive background of the players, with stints in Cherish the Ladies and the Sharon Shannon Band, guaranteed that the group’s first efforts would be memorable. “Each member is a virtuoso in his own right,” wrote Seth Rogovoy of the Berkshire Eagle.” Together, Solas is to Irish music what some of Miles Davis’s groups were to jazz in the 1960s and 70s.” Their approach explores traditional music while also adding innovative instruments and vocal combinations. Whether performing a ballad or an Irish jig, the group delivered a synthesis of old and new, creating a hybrid all their own. After five albums, several tours, and a number of lineup changes, the group continues to impress critics and fans. “Solas has established itself as one of the top Irish-folk groups on either side of the Atlantic,” noted Geoffrey Himes in MusicHound Folk.
The success of Solas lay in the experienced backgrounds of the individual players. Seamus Egan was born in the United States but moved with his family to Ireland when he was only three years old. He became proficient on the tin whistle, guitar, flute, and banjo, and by the time he was 16 years old, he had won the All-Ireland Junior Championship on flute, tin whistle, banjo, and mandolin, and recorded his solo debut, Traditional Music of Ireland, for Shanachie Records. He met guitarist and vocalist John Doyle during a stint with the Chanting House. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Doyle had composed music for the Irish film Uncle Robert’s Footsteps and was also in demand as a session player. Fiddler Winifred Horan, a native of New York, had studied at Boston’s New England Conservatory and recorded with Cherish the Ladies. In 1996, both she and Doyle became intricately involved in Egan’s third solo album, When Juniper Sleeps.
A band slowly began to take shape. A native of the United States, John Williams was active on the lively Chicago Celtic music scene. He became the first American to win the All-Ireland senior concertina championship and recorded his self-titled debut on Green Linnet Records in 1995. His concertina and button accordion skills proved a perfect fit for the other three players. Still, no one had planned to form a group. The last piece of this Celtic puzzle was Karan Casey. Casey, born in Waterford, Ireland, had studied at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in the 1980s and later at Brooklyn’s Long Island University. After a brief stint in Atlantic Bridge, she was asked by Egan and Horan to play a show with the others. “I don’t think we had any particular expectations when we first got together,” Egan told the International Music Network (IMN) online. “We just enjoyed playing with one another, and we were frankly surprised by the reactions to our first gigs.”
The band played their first show at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and their second at the annual Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. The group had no plans to tour or to record, but their early shows in Manhattan’s Irish bars created a buzz. Soon, the band had a record deal with Shanachie and began to appear on programs like National Public Radio’s (NPR) Morning Edition and on Prairie Home Companion. Recorded in 1996, their self-titled debut was produced under Johnny Cunningham of the folk group Silly Wizard. The album included both jigs and songs and garnered good reviews. “Solas … recently put out their debut album, which marries traditional sensibilities with a decidedly youthful touch,” wrote Steve Winick of Dirty Linen. On 1997’s Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers, they were joined by guest percussionist John Anthony, expanding their sound while remaining firmly planted in Celtic music.
In 1997 accordion and concertina player Mick McAuley replaced Williams. The band continued a busy touring schedule and appeared on NBC’s Weekend Today and Ireland’s The Late, Late Show. Solas recorded their third release, The Words that Remain, in 1998. Like the previous albums, it included a number of Irish folk tunes. The band, however, had also begun to experiment. They recorded versions of Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” and Peggy Seeger’s “Song of Choice.” Guest performances by banjoist Béla Fleck and singer Iris DeMent added new textures while giving the album more of an American tilt. “We didn’t have any inkling that there was this level of an American connection to it,” explained Egan to IMN,” at least
Members include Karan Casey (left group, 1999), lead vocals; DÓnai Clancy (joined group, 2000), guitar; John Doyle (left group, 2000), guitar, vocals; Seamus Egan, guitar, flute, tin whistle, banjo; Winifred Horan, fiddle; Mick McAuley (joined group, 1998), button and piano accordion; Deirdre Scanlan (joined group, 1999), lead vocals; John Williams (left group, 1998), concertina, button accordion.
Formed in New York, 1995; signed to Shanachie Records, recorded self-titled debut, 1996; released Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers, 1997; released both The Words that Remain and Live, 1998; released The Hour Before Dawn, toured the United States, 2000.
not consciously. We choose material not because of its origins but because of its appeal to us musically.” The band also released Live the same year, a 90-minute performance that captures the excitement of Solas’ live shows.
Casey left the band to record her second solo album, The Winds Begin to Sing, in 1999 and was replaced by Deirdre Scanlan. A native of Nenagh, Tipperary, Ireland, Scanlan had gained attention from her 1999 solo release, Speak Softly. When she joined the band for The Hour Before Dawn in 2000, Solas found themselves exploring new musical territory. The cover photograph, featuring a woman sitting in the sand against the backdrop of a peaceful sunrise, is as evocative as the album’s music. “As the title suggests,” noted Evan Cater of All Music Guide, “The Hour Before Dawn is a mellower album than any of Solas’ three previous efforts.” The album also includes a version of the Sarah McLachlan hit,” I Will Remember You,” a song co-written by Egan. The band supported the album by completing a tour of the Untied States in 2000–01.
The year 2000 continued to bring changes for Solas. A key founding member of the band, John Doyle, left three months after the recording of The Hour Before Dawn and was replaced by guitarist DÓnai Clancy, son of Liam Clancy of the Clancy Brothers. “Group situations are always a delicate balancing act between egos and what’s good for the group,” Egan told Rogovoy. “One of the things that helps us is that we all do have other outlets for what we’re doing creatively.”
The group has shown a willingness to experiment while still maintaining its roots in traditional Irish music. The band’s instrumental dexterity plus its mixture of male and female vocalists have given the group a broad range and flexibility. Solas has carved out a special niche on the Irish/American scene, invigorating traditional music with fresh ideas and pioneering new directions for Celtic music. “As long as there are groups such as Solas,” wrote Don Heckman in the Los Angeles Times, “Celtic music will continue to draw new, young audiences.”
Solas, Shanachie, 1996.
Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers, Shanachie, 1997.
The Words that Remain, Shanachie, 1998.
Live, Shanachie, 1998.
The Hour Before Dawn, Shanachie, 2000.
Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, editors, MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Berkshire Eagle, March 7, 1997.
Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2001, p. 8.
“Hour Before Dawn,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 6, 2001).
“Solas,” Dirty Linen, http://dirtylinen.com (June 29, 2001).
“Solas,” IMN, http://www.imnworld.com/solas.html (June 6, 2001).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.