In warming last night’s Frankfort crowd at the Grand Theatre to the tales of unforgiving, unrequited and altogether unhealthy love that are like nutrients to traditional folk music, Solas singer Mairead Phelan introduced the unpronounceable Mollai na gCuach Ni Chuilleanain by revealing the tune’s ending.
“She doesn’t come back. And he dies. It’s another cheery number.”
Judging by the smiles that lit up among artists and audience members alike, there was a still degree of cheer to these dour sagas. Sure, Phelan’s light, almost fanciful vocal delivery kept the lament from turning too bleak. But there was also Solas’ vibrant acoustic spirit to contend with. Lively banjo, flute, accordion, guitar and extraordinary fiddle drove the music. So no matter how dark the lyrical scenario, the melodies and the instrumentation driving them were elegant and vibrantly alive. The lone contemporary device was the ambient hum of a single electric keyboard that three of the band’s five members, including Phelan, took turns on during the evening.
The bulk of the two-set performance drew heavily from Solas’ two newest albums, 2008’s For Love and Laughter and the upcoming The Turning Tide (due for release on Feb. 16).
At times, Solas paired itself down for a bare bones mood piece, like a show-opening slow air led by the light melancholy of flute by multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan. In other instances, the band’s ensemble muscle was deployed, as when Egan, now on banjo with strings that burst before as intermission approached, took charge on Vital Mental Medicine. Similarly striking was a trio turn by the wonderfully animated fiddler Winfred Horan, who strayed briefly from Irish shores for the gypsy accented instrumental My Dream of You.
There were also moments when the Irish-American Solas nicely tipped the hat to their British folk counterparts by interpreting the late John Martyn’s 1975 arrangement of Spencer the Rover (sung by accordionist Mick McAuley) and early Richard Thompson (1972’s The Poor Ditching Boy, led by Phelan).
With music that was impeccably played and joyously displayed, Solas remained, in this performance, an Irish-based band with a very worldly reach.