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Irish sing

Taking solace in Solas


Hark, the tin-whistled song of Gaelic angels makes me think that nymphs with flowing dresses and lily-white breasts might be close by.

I feel something primal and archetypal at play in the lilting reels, the cyclic fiddle riffs, the pulse of the goat skin drum, also known as the bodhran. Irish music invokes a magical, enchanted-forest feeling, images of Tolkien-esque creatures frolicking in the thick moss. Meanwhile, somber notes lurk between the brightest of chords, echoing the struggles, epic and day-to-day, that the Irish have faced over the years. Not that the Irish have a monopoly on struggle…

“It can mean different things for different people,” says Seamus Egan, who co-founded Solas with fiddle player Winifred Hogan, and recently spoke to the Independent while cruising across Ohio in the band’s tour bus. “Irish music encompasses basic human emotions,” he says. “It doesn’t really hide its emotion. People can feel joy and sorrow from it—you can relate to it in any number of ways. One of the great things about Irish music is that it is a hearty music. It isn’t so precious that it needs to be protected behind museum glass. Like most traditional music, Irish music chronicles the history, the successes, the failures, and the struggles of a people. In the case of the Irish, there is plenty to write about.”

I still don’t know if he agrees with me about the magic part. I want him to agree with me, because based on everything I have heard and read, the man is a total virtuoso, a musical master. Egan is definitely a big part of why, less than halfway through the band’s decade-long existence, Solas was labeled “the best traditional Irish band in the world” by the Boston Herald—no mean authority on the subject. Solas last came to Missoula four years ago, touring in support of their then-new album The Hour Before Dawn. I was at the show, and it was outstanding. Two albums later, they are back, playing the University Theater this Saturday, April 10.

Solas is the Gaelic word for “light.” It’s also the name for a popular brand of Irish light bulb. It’s also a homonym for solace, which means comfort. And if it’s a rainy, wet day, as is often the case in Ireland, the collective notes of Celtic music have a way of burning through the clouds. Celtic music is green.

But what exactly is Celtic music anyway? I know it when I hear it, like jazz, but I’m not sure I can define it.

“It’s a lilt and an energy that is identifiable,” says Egan. “Theoretically speaking, you could talk about the structure, but that’s a little boring. Simply put, it gets your foot tapping.”

Hmm. A little more from our musical genius would have been be nice, but maybe some secrets aren’t for sharing. A multi-instrumentalist, Egan’s musical facility appeared early, when, by the age of 14, he had already won the prestigious All-Ireland music competition four years in a row on the flute. He also took All-Ireland titles on tin whistle, banjo and mandolin. He plays all of these instruments with Solas, as well as mandolin, nylon guitar, electric guitar and bodhran. In addition to Hogan’s fiddle, the group also includes rhythm guitar, vocals and accordion.

Edge of Silence, the Solas album that followed The Hour Before Dawn, earned critical acclaim from some and grumblings of betrayal from others for its tweaking of Celtic heritage. Edge of Silence takes many chances, including departures into techno-pop drum loops and electric guitar, risks that might enervate even the Wall Street Journal writer who had previously called Solas “spirited and refreshingly risk-taking.”

“Edge of Silence took a few people by surprise,” acknowledges Egan. “The instrumentation and material is quite different.

“I’m very proud of that album,” he adds. “Sometimes it’s good to shake things up a bit. Irish music is malleable enough that it can absorb outside elements and still remain Irish.”

Not even covers of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan songs could take away Solas’ shamrock groove.

Speaking of covers, many of you may remember Sarah McLaughlin’s Grammy-award winning “I Will Remember You.” It may not jump out as an Irish tune, but it was written by Seamus Egan. When Solas plays it, it sounds much more Irish. And Deirdre Scanlon’s vocals, a long way from her native Tipperary, will haunt you.

Meanwhile, hardcore reel-and-jig fans can take heart. You get your due with Another Day, the newest Solas release. There are some plaintive ballads as well—another hallmark of the Irish genre—including heartbreakers like “Just You,” written by the newest Solas also performs a beautiful cover of “Scarecrow’s Dream,” by Dan Fogelberg, and a traditional song called “Seoladh na nGamhna,” sung in Gaelic by Scanlon, whose voice rises and falls as effortlessly as the shadow of a cloud climbing an emerald ridge. I can hear it echoing through the trees of the enchanted forest, down below.

Solas plays UM’s University Theater this Saturday, April 10, at 8 PM. Tickets are $20 in advance, $22 at the door. Call 829-8219 for info.

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