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Solas CD outshines other new Celtic releases

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Stewart Oksenhorn photo.Mick McAuley, accordionist with Irish-American band Solas, has released his first solo album, "An Ocean's Breadth," and is featured on the new Solas CD, "Another Day."
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So it’s come to this: Main Street Bakery is the premier live music club in Aspen.

Looking for the silver lining in the dark cloud that is Aspen’s current music scene, you’d have to say the emergence of the Bakery is a good one. Ever since Steve’s Guitars established itself as a fine listening room in Carbondale, music fans have been clamoring for a similar setting in Aspen. Now we have one in the Bakery, where the sounds are acoustic and the emphasis is on listening, rather than drinking and talking. The series has been a success, with locals Jimmy Ibbotson, the Flying Dog Bluegrass Band and Dan Sheridan, and the import John Reischman, drawing good crowds.

Organizers of the Bakery series hoped that the setting would serve as more than just a listening venue. Sandy Munro, producer of the concerts, music teacher, and a member of the Flying Dogs, sought to make the spot a place where players of all talent levels could participate in making music. And this has happened, too. The monthly Celtic/Old-Time Jams, held the first Wednesday of each month, have drawn guitarists, fiddlers, banjoists, whistle and button-accordion players, sitting in a big circle and playing traditional Irish tunes. Steve Johnson, another Flying Dog (and Aspen Times copy editor) organizes the events by providing participants with recordings, chord charts and sheet music.

The Celtic night takes a month off from the Bakery in November for cleaning. (It moves to Munro’s Brush Creek Village home for a session on Wednesday, Nov. 5. For more information, call the Great Divide Music Store at 925-7492. Free copies of the “Aspen Celtic Session” CD are available at the Great Divide.)

In the meantime, interested pickers can get in the spirit with these recent Celtic CD releases.

The last recording from Irish-American quintet Solas, last year’s “The Edge of Silence,” was recorded in the wake of Sept. 11. It was dark as all hell, with covers of songs by such masters of the blackness as Tom Waits and Nick Drake. This from a band whose name translates as “light.”

Solas seems to have lightened up over the last two years. The instrumental sounds are gentler and more acoustic-based. There are more traditional Irish tunes, both songs and instrumentals. The overall tone is bright, even on a sad song like “Just You.” Even the CD cover is of the sun shining. It is indeed “Another Day.”

It is a testament to the broad talent of Solas how well “Another Day” comes off. Though a far more traditional take on the music than “The Edge of Silence,” “Another Day” retains a modern flair. Even on the rooted instrumental suite “The Carlisle Reels” ” featuring guest Bela Fleck on banjo ” Solas has an up-to-date feel for the sound. Lead vocalist Deirdre Scanlan has a timeless voice, neither tied to the past nor intentionally contemporary.

The band has been most clever in selecting material here: Dan Fogelberg’s “Scarecrow’s Dream,” Dougie MacLean’s “This Love Will Carry” and “Just You” by Solas’ Eamon McElholm all mix somber tones with an essentially optimistic view. It is a marvelous successor to “The Edge of Silence.” The band, whose original base was in New York City, hasn’t just snapped back to normalcy after Sept. 11, but is wrestling with how to get there.

Solas accordionist Mick McAuley has strong ties to the Irish way of playing. McAuley was born in County Kilkenny, Ireland, into a well-known musical family, and was performing on national television by the time he was 11.

On “An Ocean’s Breadth,” his first solo recording, McAuley aims for those roots. He is backed by several of his Solas mates, including Seamus Egan, who produces here. But clearly McAuley is going for something far removed from the Solas sound. All the songs are either traditional or written by McAuley with an ear for that tradition. Most every song puts the accordion in the spotlight, but McAuley, a backing singer in Solas, takes the lead vocals, too, demonstrating a soft, expressive voice. He also plays the whistles and the bodhran, an Irish percussion instrument, here.

It didn’t take long for the Chieftains, the celebrated Irish ensemble led by uillean piper and tin whistler Paddy Moloney, to take another trip down the Old Plank Road. The original “Down the Old Plank Road,” featuring American acoustic music notables backed by the Chieftains, earned a Grammy nomination and spun off a televised concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

As with most of these guest-packed projects, “Further Down the Old Plank Road” hits a few potholes to go with the highlights. John Hiatt putting his twangy rock voice to an upbeat Irish tune sticks out like a sore thumb next to Tim O’Brien, who is a perfect natural on “Shady Grove.” Sometimes the crossbreeding is interesting: Emmylou Harris singing the ballad “Lambs in the Greenfield,” or Nickel Creek joining the Chieftains on an inspired “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy.” Other times, the American singers are just out of their element.

One nice thing is how little overlap there is with the guest roster from the first “Old Plank Road.” Here, invitations are extended to John Prine, Doc Watson, Patty Loveless, Rosanne Cash, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others who are newcomers to the party.

Among those who co-founded the sextet Danu, for a 1995 Irish festival, was guitarist Donal Clancy, a son of Liam Clancy of the famous Clancy Brothers. Donal, who left the group to join Solas for a spell, is now back with Danu. Also added for the band’s third recording is Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Danu’s first vocalist.

Neither Clancy nor Amhlaoibh seems to have brought with them much of Solas’ adventurous spirit. Danu plays on a high technical level. But on “The Road Less Traveled,” the arrangements, the production and the material ” all traditional songs, save for a take on Richard Thompson’s “Farewell Farewell” ” are all somewhat staid, making for a pleasant rather than stimulating ride.

There are plenty of hints as to the nature of the relationship between the two-CD set “The Celtic Circle” and actual Celtic music. There is the label, Windham Hill, which specializes in watered-down New Age sounds. The album is subtitled “Legendary Music from a Mystic World,” whatever that is meant to indicate. Finally, there is the big “As Seen on TV” tag on the cover, as if that were an assurance of quality.

“The Celtic Circle” is exactly as expected, a mixed bag of tricks ” selections from movie soundtracks, pop music by Irish bands, unfortunate contributions from usually reliable Irish artists ” united only by the tangential relationship with genuine Celtic music. From a duet featuring U2’s Bono to an instrumental from the “Braveheart” soundtrack to a reworking of Yes’ “Turn of the Century” featuring Annie Haslam and Steve Howe, this is adulterated, synthesized junk of the pseudo-Celtic variety.


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