SO-SO SOLAS: Concert Review

Solas on Stage

Over the past dozen years the Irish/Irish-American band Solas has established itself as among the crème de la crème of Celtic bands. Thursday night’s performance at the sold-out Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts did little to harm that reputation, though it didn’t do much to enhance it either. As Solas concerts go, this one was middle-of-the-road—one marked by glorious peaks and a few unexpected valleys.
Solas Getting Jiggy
Solas made their way through fifteen selections and two encores. Multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan—the band’s heart and soul—was stunning on his nylon-string guitar. His introductory lines to “The Gallant Hussar” were a marvel, and his work on the semi-waltz/jig set “Sunday’s Waltz/Double Oh” saw him lay down notes that were simultaneously delicate and muscular. Other highlights included Mick McAuley’s lead vocal on “Spencer the Rover,” an emotion-laden treatment that made Spencer seem more tragic than rakish. Máiréad Phelan offered a surprisingly deft cover of “Sailor Song,” a piece drawn from the repertoire of Rickie Lee Jones rather than the traditional well. Another highlight was Winfred Horan’s fiddle on the slow air “My Dream of You.” It had a faintly Russian/gypsy feel to it and not just because Horan had just told a story about the band’s recent trip to Moscow.

The latter moment redeemed Horan, as it came halfway through the evening and Horan was having an off night prior to it. This was especially noticeable in the first five selections of the evening in which her fiddle tones were too sharp. She was also throwing in jazzy riffs that were flashy and in keeping with her animated performance style, but which were occasionally discordant. Even Mr. Egan blew a few sour notes on the penny whistle (though his astonishing flute, guitar, and banjo work throughout the evening more than compensated). I also have mixed feelings about Phelan’s vocals and much prefer the livelier selections in which she’s less breathy and mannered.

The audience, already primed for next week’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities, didn’t seem to notice the slips. Part of this is due to the band’s relaxed stage patter; Solas has a talent for making you feel as if you’re in a gigantic living room rather than a pub. Part is also due to the tremendous energy they put forth. When they crank up a jig set such as “John Riordan’s Heels/Hoban’s White House/The Lisnagun Jig,” all is right with the world and everyone goes home happy. And, let’s face it, mortal bands would kill to have an off-night whose quality meter spiked as high as it did for Solas on March 12.
Their new CD is available from Compass Records. See a good Solas live clip.

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