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Sound of Solas

Stewart Oksenhorn

There was a time when Seamus Egan literally believed that the world of music was limited to traditional Irish sounds. The Egan family had moved from the Philadelphia suburbs, where Seamus was born, to his father’s native Ireland, when Seamus was 4. When he was 6, Egan and several of his five siblings began music lessons, studying traditional Irish playing with a teacher who would pass through their town once a week. At first, Egan was ambivalent about the music and the lessons. “But over time, it crept up on me. I became obsessed with the whole thing,” said Egan, whose first training was on penny whistle. “For the longest time, I thought Irish traditional music was the only music that ever existed. I had blinkers on.”Egan, now 35, has become well aware of the big world of sounds outside of the Emerald Isle. Solas, the band he formed in New York City nearly a decade ago, is built on identifiably Irish sounds: Egan plays flute, whistles, bodhran, banjo, mandolin and nylon-string guitar; he is surrounded by fiddler Winifred Horan, accordionist Mick McAuley, acoustic guitarist Eamon McElholm and lead singer Deirdre Scanlan, possessor of a voice that is as Irish as the day is long. Much of their repertoire comprises instrumental reels and jigs that date back a century or so.But Solas has also displayed a strong tendency to break with the old. They have incorporated electric guitars, keyboards and even computer programming into their recordings. Bob Dylan’s “Dignity” and Tom Waits’ “Georgia Lee” are as likely to find their way into a set list as “Bruach Na Carriage Baine” or “Eminor Reel.” It is not wrong to call Solas an Irish band – technically, it’s mostly true; McAuley, Scanlan and McElholm are all Irish-born – but the term seems unfairly limiting for a band so willing to stretch, invent and experiment. And as they proved in a 2002 Wheeler Opera House performance, Solas is simply a world-class band, transcending category.

“Fundamentally we are an Irish band. The background is in the Irish tradition ” said Egan, whose family returned to the Philadelphia area, where he now lives, when he was 11. “But certainly we’re not opposed trying other things, bringing other elements into what we do. We’ve never concerned ourselves with whether we were remaining pure in the traditional sense. If something felt pure and we thought we could tackle it, that was the guiding light.”The goal, added Egan, was to create a unique niche in Irish music. It is a target they seem to have hit. Solas has received enormous praise from all corners. And whether they are jamming on an ancient reel like “Pinch of Snuff,” reinterpreting the Sarah McLachlan hit “I Will Remember You” (co-written by Egan), or giving dark life to “Black Annis,” German songwriter Antje Duvekot’s chilling song of child rape, Solas is a step apart from the pack.”As much as possible, we’ve tried to play with our own voice,” said Egan, who has produced Solas’ six albums, several of which have been recorded in his home studio. “Hopefully it’s something unique to us. That would be a goal, to do what you do in your own voice and have it be identifiable to you. And I think we’ve done that even with all the changes in the lineup. (Of the current quintet, only Egan and Horan are original members.) We’ve always had a musical identity.”The band’s most experimental creation to date is the 2002 CD “The Edge of Silence.” Recorded shortly after 9/11, and made in upstate New York while several of the band members were living in New York City, the album – co-produced by Neil Dorfsman (Sting, the Raveonettes, William Topley) – is dark in the extreme. “The Edge of Silence” opens with a cover of the Youngbloods’ “Darkness, Darkness,” and doesn’t get any brighter from there. (This from a band whose name is Gaelic for light.) The songs include Waits’ “Georgia Lee,” a blood-curdling murder ballad with the refrain, “Why wasn’t God watching?”; and “Clothes of Sand,” a tale of estrangement by the late master of melancholia, Nick Drake. In this company Dylan’s Dignity,” with its slight ray of hope, stands out as upbeat. The music, almost all in minor keys, matched the lyrical mood, with more atmospheric electric sounds than in any of the band’s other albums. With “The Edge of Silence,” it was possible to see Solas some day coming almost entirely untethered from its roots.

“To a degree, I think that wouldn’t surprise me,” said Egan. “It would be impossible to abandon that part of ourselves because it’s such a core foundation. But they may not be as obvious from time to time. ‘The Edge of Silence’ – that’s the furthest we removed ourselves. We really wanted to try to do that, see if it was possible to take it out there. It definitely surprised a lot of people, in some good ways and in some not-so-good ways.”The reviews of “The Edge of Silence” did, in fact, divide critics. For those, like myself, who thought “The Edge of Silence” was the best thing Solas had done, last year’s “Another Day” was a retreat back to their roots. To Egan, it was simply the result of a different way of making music than they had on the production-heavy “The Edge of Silence.””The overall idea of ‘Another Day’ was, after the full-blown studio experience of ‘The Edge of Silence,’ we wanted to make a record that felt like people sitting in a room and playing,” he said. “And that notion is reflected in the material and the sound, which is a lot more acoustic.”We always said we didn’t want to keep making the same record. We wanted to keep ourselves interested.”

So where is Solas headed? The band is currently making its next record, in Egan’s home studio in Center City Philadelphia. But even the band’s leader won’t venture to say where the new project will find the band.”It’s a little too early to tell,” he said.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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