solas system

solas. from left: mick mcauley, winifred horan, mairead phelan, eamon mcelholm, seamus egan. photo by robert hakalski.

solas. from left: mick mcauley, winifred horan, mairead phelan, eamon mcelholm and seamus egan. photo by robert hakalski.

When Seamus Egan and Winifred Horan began gigging about the country in the first lineup of Solas, there wasn’t much concern for what the future held.

That was nearly 15 years ago. Since then, the acclaimed Irish-American ensemble has released 10 albums that favor Irish traditional music without staying exclusively bound to it.

“If you had asked us 15 years ago, ‘What do you think will happen?’ I think our answer would have been, ‘Oh, we’ll just do a few gigs and that will be it,'” said fiddler/vocalist Horan. “Seriously. I doubt there was even thought to making an album.

“Obviously, we’re still getting something out of Solas. But what that is doesn’t feel like work. The band is the safety zone. It’s the best place to be.”

If the music on the band’s upcoming album The Turning Tide is any indication, the best place is about to get a lot better. It is Solas’ second recording with its current personnel – multi-instrumentalist Egan (born in Pennsylvania, but reared in County Mayo in Ireland), Horan (born in New York to Irish parents), accordionist/guitarist Mick McAuley (from County Kilkenny in Ireland), guitarist/pianist Eamon McElholm (from County Tyrone in the north of Ireland) and vocalist Mairead McAuley (also from County Kilkenny). And like the music it has produced since the release of a self-titled debut record in 1996, The Turning Tide is richly traditional in scope and style. Except when it isn’t.

“In general, Solas doesn’t pay too much mind to labels. It’s very crippling to life, as well as to music and art, when you have to live according to how you’ve been labeled. Sometimes it is completely inaccurate.”

So what does that make Solas then? Is it the sort of band that bowed to enormous contemporary and commercial influence, like the Celtic ensemble Clannad during the ‘90s, to where it sounds almost like a pop group? Definitely not. Save for very discreet touches of electric bass, Solas’ music is thoroughly acoustic.

On The Turning Tide, the approach is only contemporary when you look at the repertoire. Sprinkled amid traditional instrumentals and songs are interpretations of works by such modern songsmiths as Bruce Springsteen, Richard Thompson and Josh Ritter. But those compositions reflect such a strong folk sensibility – lyrically as well as spiritually – that their transference to a largely Irish traditional setting seems quite natural.

From Springsteen, Solas chose the John Steinbeck-inspired The Ghost of Tom Joad, which is taken at a spry Celtic gallop. From Thompson came 1972’s The Poor Ditching Boy, which already boasted a broad sense of traditional spirit. From Ritter, came A Girl in the War, which boasted a suitably timeless narrative.

One of the album’s most curious adventures is an adaptation of the traditional tune A Sailor’s Life, which has long been ripe for reconstruction. In fact, Thompson was one of the chief architects in devising a new electric version of the song over 40 years ago as a member of the then-young Fairport Convention. Solas’ take, which is considerably less ghostly than the Fairport revision, flies on lighter, limber accents of fiddle and accordion as well as the altogether sweeter air of Phelan’s vocals.

“Myself and everyone else in the band are huge Richard Thompson fans,” Horan said. “We were playing at a bluegrass festival in Colorado four or five years ago and he was on the bill as a solo act. We scurried to get out front to get a spot to watch the gig. And it just blew us away. It was an epiphany, really. He was solo, but it sounded like there were 15 people onstage.”

“Really, if you try to cover somebody else, especially people like Bruce and Richard, one of the things you have to consider is that their original version will always be the original. And, in most people’s minds, it will also be the best. And that’s fine. But to get around that, you have to try to make the song your own. For us, that means bringing these songs into that little Solas vortex and making them work for us while still paying the tribute that is due to the material.”

When it comes to original music, Horan has come up with quite a surprise for The Turning Tide. It’s an instrumental rich in accordion, mandolin and fiddle that boasts more of a rustic Eastern European flavor than an overtly Irish one. The title is A Waltz for Mairead in honor of Phelan. The surprise element comes in the fact that Horan still had not told Phelan about the title when we conducted our interview.

“Mairead is such a wonderful person and a good friend. She has breathed new life into the band musically, socially and, for me, in every way. I know the boys feel that way, too. She is a wonderful spirit. I’m curious to see what she’s going to say when she finds out I wrote her a tune.

“I think the best thing any band has going for it is when it can be its own barometer for the kinds of music it wants to do. But we’re still very well aware of where we come from and where our roots are. You have to know where you come from to actually get someplace comfortably.

“I mean, life is a journey, isn’t it? You never get to a point where you get everything figured out. There’s no set plan or map, really. It’s the same with music. So why not keep playing and experimenting?”

Solas performs at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets are $15, $20 and $30. Call (502) 352-7469 or go to

The Top Ten travel list: Above-par golfing.

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL) July 10, 2006 The world’s top golf resorts, from the readers of Conde Nast Traveler:

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Four Seasons Resort, Nevis The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

Inn at Bay Harbor, Bay Harbor, Mich.

Gleneagles, Auchterarder, Scotland Four Seasons Resort at Troon North, Scottsdale, Ariz.

___ GEOQUIZ: King Tut was entombed in the Valley of Kings near which ancient city that was once capital of the Egyptian Empire?

(Answer: Thebes) ___ Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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