Solas brings its take on Irish folk to Aspen |

Solas brings its take on Irish folk to Aspen

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Robert HakalskiIrish folk band Solas will play Aspen's Wheeler Opera House on Saturday, Nov. 7.

ASPEN – After a decade and a half and seven studio albums, Solas seems to have dialed in its formula: Compose a handful of original instrumental tunes that are closely tied to the Irish folk tradition. Scour the musical landscape for a little-known but outstanding songwriter to hand you a song or two. Pick out a gem from the far reaches of the catalogue of a rock superstar. Stir it all up with sounds that are unmistakably rooted in old Ireland, but also reach for something modern and new. Serve up to audiences.It is a formula that has worked just fine. Solas has played at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Boston’s Symphony Hall, Milwaukee’s Irish Fest and the Glastonbury Festival in England. They have been hailed as the coolest thing to happen in contemporary Celtic music – and if they haven’t, I will so hail them right now – or, to remove them from categorical constraints, the Irish Echo says they are among the “most exciting bands anywhere in the world.” Rap/r&b producer Timbaland sampled Solas on his radio hit, “All Y’all.”But Solas isn’t much interested in formulas. The band didn’t start out with a precisely mapped plan to blend Irish instruments with a cutting-edge folk sensibility; that just happened. And they don’t care now to settle into a planned method of music-making.”You’re always sort of fighting against the formula,” Seamus Egan, the band’s leader and multi-instrumentalist, said by phone from his home in Philadelphia. “We’ve made a lot of albums, been together 14 years, and over the years, we’ve made albums in a certain way. But within that, you’re fighting not to make the same album. You want to get outside the comfort level. You try news ways of approaching an album – through material or recording methods or something as seemingly innocuous as changing locations.”Egan and his mates – accordionist Mick McAuley; guitarist Eamon McElholm; singer Mirad Phelan; and Winifred Horan, a fiddler, former Aspen Music School student, founding member of Solas and Egan’s one-time offstage partner – are in the final stages of completing a new album. “Turning the Tide” was made in Philadelphia, where the band has recorded frequently, but in a facility that they hadn’t worked in before. The studio, called The Opera House, is a ’70s-vintage recording venue that Egan says “is as far from an opera house as you could possibly imagine,” in the heart of gritty, ethnic South Philly.It is a far cry, equipment-wise, from Sigma Sounds, the well-known studio where the Philly soul sound was born, and where Solas recorded its early albums. It is remote, geographically and in the surrounding environs, from Bearsville Studio, in Woodstock, N.Y., where Solas, in the wake of 9/11, recorded the immensely dark “The Edge of Silence.”The Opera House inspired Solas to go for a particular recording method: The bulk of “The Turning Tide,” set for a mid-February release, was recorded as the band played live, in unison, in one big room.”Which is rare these days,” said Egan. “We’ve done that off and on. At this point, we’ve tried any number of ways – everybody sitting down, or putting tracks together piece by piece and everything in between. But there’s a different energy where you’re all in the room at the same time.”For material, “The Turning Tide” features a bunch of jigs and reels written by Solas, as well as songs that come from further outside the Irish tradition. They cover Richard Thompson, and got a song from Scottish folkie Karine Polwart. (Their go-to songwriter on recent albums, German-born Antje Duvekot, doesn’t make an appearance this time.)The biggest stretch on “The Turning Tide” is a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song. Egan declined to identify the song, but if it follows recent history, it is likely to be on the obscure side. Solas has in the past recorded a pair of Bob Dylan songs: “Dignity” and “Seven Curses.” Not exactly “Mr. Tambourine Man” – but Solas doesn’t pick songs to cover based on what listeners might instantly recognize.”Songs outside the tradition, for us we need to feel we are bringing something to it – that it sounds like Solas, and we can do justice to the song,” Egan said. “That’s whether you’re singing Springsteen, Dylan or Woody Guthrie. We’ve always looked at doing songs that are not strictly Irish.”If there is one formula that Solas has rigorously followed, it’s the Irish-ness of its members. Egan was born in Pennsylvania, but raised in his parents’ homeland of County Mayo, Ireland. Horan was born in New York to Irish parents, and spent extensive time in her formative years in Ireland. McAuley, Phelan and McElholm were all born on Irish soil, as were other former Solas members.”That’s just the way it’s come about,” Egan said of the Irish connection. “There were never any boxes that needed to be checked.”Egan says Solas itself just came about. He wasn’t looking to put together a certain kind of band. But the people he reached out to – including original Solas singer Karan Casey, who has gone on to a solo career – happened to have Irish blood in them, and a desire to expand the traditions of Irish music.”We never set any boundaries to what we were doing,” said Egan, who leads Solas to a date at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday, Nov. 7. “I think – no I know – we were blissfully unaware of any of that. With that first album we were very unburdened by anyone’s expectations of what we do. You have one time of that; after that, there’s a certain watermark that’s set.”

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