By Daniel Neely
In 2016, the now-legendary group Solas celebrates its 20th anniversary. It seems like it was only a few years back that their eponymous first album came out, but as you reflect on things you remember that the group has 11 albums to its credit and numerous world tours to boast of. The scale of its artistic vision and continued success is really quite something, so it shouldn’t surprise that for this milestone occasion the group has gone to great effort to put something special together in a new album, “All These Years.” The legions of Solas fans will consider it a most welcome sight, not simply because it’s a stunning return to form, but because it features some familiar and fondly remembered faces from the group’s past. Indeed, it is an album that makes a great statement and is absolutely worth checking out.
Recorded in Ireland and the U.S., “All These Years” features the group’s current lineup, which includes Seamus Egan, Winifred Horan (the group’s only remaining original members), Eamon McElholm, Mick McAuley and Moira Smiley, but it’s joined by a full range of past members, including Karan Casey, John Doyle, John Williams, Donal Clancy, Deirdre Scanlan, Mairead Phelan, Niamh Varian Barry, Noriana Kennedy and Johnny B. Connolly. Also appearing are other musicians who have performed with the band and are considered part of the Solas family: bassist Chico Huff, percussionist Ben Wittman, engineer and percussionist John Anthony, and bassist Trevor Hutchinson.
And truly, the album is quite extraordinary. It features a wide range of expressive moods, something not only facilitated by the number of musicians involved, but by the keen mix of instrumental and vocal tracks, and the great arranging. Tracks like “Roarie Bummers” and “Lucy Locket’s / …” have a conspicuously “Irish” feel. The instrumental “Lost in Quimper” has a lovely French flavor to it. “Willie Moore,” featuring Niamh Varian Barry’s vocals, has a gently upbeat groove that borrows from the old time and country stylistic palettes. “Little Bird in Heaven” is a soft, gently flowing ballad with lovely harmonic touches that showcases Mairead Phelan’s voice well. Moira Smiley’s singing sits wonderfully on the beautiful music in “Lay Me Down,” which is a tense and emotionally wrought track that listeners will enjoy.
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I particularly enjoy “Sixteen Come Next Sunday,” which features Karan Casey’s vocals, as it both recalls the Bothy Band’s take on the song, but also manages to take on a very “Solas” like sounds. It’s a lovely track. Similarly, “Darkness Darkness,” on which Moira Smiley sings, has a driving, percussive motif that captures the spirit of a road crew or a rural labor camp, and speaks the the group’s continued interest in the music of the Irish-American experience.
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A band’s 20-year anniversary is an honorable reason to release an album and it’s a brilliant idea to bring the group’s alumni together to celebrate the occasion. Not only does “All These Years” seem to possess a wonderfully realized nostalgia, the music is inventive and has a vitality that speaks both to the quality of the musicians involved and also to the strength of the group’s foundation. It would appear each musician went into this project with a shared sense of what it should be and the results are simply gorgeous. This is an album that Solas fans will have to have, but it’s one that will speak to music fans of all sorts. Definitely one to have!
A final note on the album’s release: Solas ran an exceptionally effective Kickstarter campaign to make this album happen, and artists and music fans – especially those critical of crowed funding platforms – should take note. The group created smart reward packages at common sense price points to pre-sell the project, an approach that achieved the twofold goal of covering the cost of making the album and publicizing it in advance. This is an end that would have been handled differently 20 years ago, when artists would more often have had to rely on record labels to do the work and trust they would do it fairly, which is something which didn’t always happen. Instead, the band took the leap of faith and handled the business end of music making themselves. In the end, 726 of its fans pledged $46,199 to bring this project to fruition. Theirs was a great approach not only because it yielded a great album, but because it speaks to the enormous effort and expense that this sort of undertaking requires.
To learn more about “All These Years,” visit Solas’s website at solasmusic.com.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music each week in the Irish Echo.