Friday, March 9, 2012

About Town: Solas

Again, something I wanted to hear. Again, I was scheduled to be out of town -- on business this time. And again events beyond my control forced me to be back in Billings unexpectedly for the weekend.

My solace? Solas. Ever since hearing this fine Irish-American band on a Celtic music sampler CD back in the 90's, I have thought they were something special. The piece I first heard was "Crested Hens," a haunting, spare, and softly lilting tune that stretched the melodic boundaries of traditional Celtic music. Almost New Age-ish, but not quite... Tugs at parts of you that you forgot were there until gently reminded.

So, when scanning the Alberta Bair season, Solas was the first performance I marked on the calendar (only later to find that I had to be out of town that weekend.) As with most Celtic music concerts at the AB, I arrived to find a most pleasant gathering -- jackets, ties, and dresses here and there, cargo pants and flannel shirts (me and many others,) a good showing of Wranglers and cowboy hats... and everyone seemingly as relaxed and happy as if they had a couple good, relaxing drinks aboard. Which is of course possible. In short, I was reminded of why this particular ranch boy who also loves the arts finds Billings to be such a comfortable place to live.

Solas has been through a number of personnel changes over the years, but two founding members are still with the band -- multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and violinist Winifred Horan. The band members are Irish and American, to various extents -- Horan was born and raised in New York, Eagan was born in the US, but grew up in Ireland and has an accent to prove it. The rest were born in Ireland but are based out of the US now, hence allowing Solas to make a credible claim to be the most prominent Irish-American band on the Celtic music scene.

Regardless of geography or chauvinistic sensibilities, Solas is an exquisite acoustic band in the traditional music vein. They can spin off traditional jigs and reels with the best of them, but it is in their original material and adaptations that they shine, making use of modern chord progressions, unusual time signatures and bridges -- all very good stuff. Joining us was my 20-something son with musical tastes eclectic enough to encompass genuine passions for old-school jazz and West Coast hip-hop alike. He, too, was unexpectedly still in Billings, thanks to the happenstance breakdown of his truck that prevented his scheduled return to college. Last minute ticket purchasing was successful -- the house was almost sold out up through the loge, but thankfully there is still an occasional hesitancy in this town to sit in the front row. We therefore felt obliged to take a few seats up there.

A pleasant surprise was learning that this tour has a Montana connection. The historic center of Montana, Butte, hosted the National Folk Festival from 2008-2010, and while Solas was there performing, Seamus Eagan had the opportunity to explore an old family story of his great-great uncle who came to Butte to work in the mines at the turn of the last century. At the time when "no Irish need apply" was the rule elsewhere, Irish knew that if they could just get to Butte (no mean task in those days,) the legendary Marcus Daly (born in County Cavan,) had no such prejudices, and would give an Irishman a job. It being a very rough mining town that was dangerous for miners both above and below the surface, Eagan's relative unsurprisingly died a young, violent death.

Solas decided to explore the Irish-American experience in Butte with a combined recording and film project they have called "Shamrock City," and tonight's concert featured original music from the project. We greatly look forward to seeing and hearing the final project.

It is always a mark of confidence when a performer or band concentrates on their more recent material rather than just trotting out old favorites, and Solas did so tonight. Not only was there no “Crested Hens,” I was surprised that they didn't perform the one big hit co-written by Eagan -- "I Will Remember You," made famous when covered by Canadian Sarah McLachlan (another co-writer on the song.) It really wouldn't have fit into the set, and I respected the musicality they showed by leaving it out (assuming that Eagan still has rights to perform the song.)

Not much more to say than to congratulate the AB schedulers for getting Solas on the calendar, and to hope that they'll be back soon. All in all, a magical evening.

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