It may seem strange to review music that came out two years ago, but Solas is still in the middle of a long tour with the Shamrock City program, with a performance this week (March 7) in Raleigh. I saw an early version of the Shamrock City tour in Ann Arbor, Michigan on Feburary 14, 2012, before the album had even come out and was impressed at the new material and novel direction.
Just as background, the Irish-American group Solas has been an important band in Celtic music since their eponymous first album in 1996. After three incredible albums, the membership of the band went into flux, though the founding core couple/duo of Winifred Horan (fiddles) and Séamus Egan (multi-instrumentalist) has remained constant. The band took some different creative directions for the next several albums (including a bizarre flirtation with pop music). In 2005, however, the band returned from mediocrity to more traditional music with Waiting for an Echo and have put out several solid albums since.
In a change from the previous work, their latest project, Shamrock City, has an overarching theme—the album of original music is kind of a creative nonfiction/family history project about Michael Conway, Egan's great-great uncle, who immigrated in 1910 from Ireland to the mining town of Butte, Montana. At the time, Butte had one of the highest concentrations of Irish outside Ireland in the whole world, due to an Irish mine supervisor (though Butte's mining jobs attracted people from all over the world, too). While there's not a storyline, per se, the album does have a subtle plot arc, beginning with hope, moving on to gritty determination, and ending in disillusionment. The audience is invited to put themselves in the immigrant's shoes, especially in "No Forgotten Man", a plea to not mistreat or forget those people doing the dirty work, including those in the military.
While the songs are mostly original, Solas is entrenched enough in traditional forms to convincingly dress up their songs to fit the mold while keeping a fresh contemporary folk flavor. The band shines in their instrumental tracks, as always, particularly the fast dance pieces like "Girls on the Line" and "High, Wide, and Handsome". They are masters at writing exciting melodies and mixing up timbres, using Egan's multi-instrumentalist talents to their fullest. But the songs, the focus in Shamrock City, are strong, too. Although since Karan Casey left the group, Solas had not had a regular singer, the band worked this to their advantage in Shamrock City, inviting several strong guest vocalists to help tell the story. "Lay Your Money Down", which portrays the character of a mining town gambling house, is probably the strongest, with vocals by Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who I believe is touring with the group. Hopefully, their newest lead singer, Irishwoman Noriana Kennedy, will stick.
Shamrock City's version of creative family history shows that this genre has promise, with a compelling real-life story dressed up in song. The end result actually has a lot in common with Sting's recent musical/album The Last Ship, including the labor/working class theme. And while Shamrock City does not reach the level of the three early Solas albums, it is a great listen with a compelling and moving story.
What did you think?
Vocab: eponymous, timbre