Love and Laughter from Solas

UNLESS you are U2 and successful beyond anyone's imagination, it is very hard to keep a professional band on the road and performing for more than a decade, no matter what the genre.

Add to it the challenge of keeping the essence of the band intact and evolving at the same time amidst critical personnel shifts, as personal and professional situations present themselves over the years.

For the cutting edge band Solas - formulated in the mid-nineties as one of the top bands to come out of Irish America - the pressure has been on remaining founding members Seamus Egan and Winifred Horan to stay fresh and topical and flexible to remain in the vanguard of the professional touring bands creating music that makes people stop and listen.

With the release of their ninth CD For Love and Laughter, Solas has once again solidified their place as one of the most exciting and creative bands to be seen in the Celtic acoustic music arena.

The release in 2006 of their last recording celebrating their first decade, Reunion, on both CD and DVD encompassing all the band members from the early years like Karan Casey, John Doyle and John Williams successfully demonstrated where they had been and where they were going as a band.

The live recording -- the first the band had done with any of its ensembles -- was packed full of energy and drive and the collective talents that Solas has always seemed to exhibit in full force.

Perhaps it invited comparisons about whether the old band that started out so explosively with Casey, Williams and Doyle alongside Egan and Horan would outshine newer members Mick McAuley, Deirdre Scanlon and Eamon McElholm.

Rather, it showed the strength of the band's open collaborative tendencies to work with the talents on hand and get the best of out of them in ensemble mode.

When Scanlon left the band shortly thereafter for a less hectic life in Ireland, Solas (which was truly blessed with both Casey and Scanlon as dynamic vocalists with their own strong styles) needed to recruit another lead singer who could dominate center stage and help shape their performances and allow more suitable vocal settings for Mick McAuley and Eamon McElholm.

Kilkenny native Mairead Phelan emerged with her own impressive background as a singer, flute and keyboardist, ready to tackle one of the pre-eminent jobs in the Irish music scene just in time to complete the recording of the latest CD which was already underway.

For Love and Laughter, like the other Solas recordings, captures the present day band of Egan, Horan, McAuley, McElholm and now Phelan like a photographic snapshot for this time and place.

Longtime fans of the band will not be disappointed, and it is quite possible that they can win a number of new fans with this CD which is a really good listen, with 12 tracks that give a full flavor of all the moods and emotions this band can churn out.

The arrangements for the instrumental tracks and backing the vocals are first-rate and reflect the extraordinary diversity of the band and its collective musical acumen that have produced a variety of listening experiences that parallel their earlier catalog.

Multi-instrumentalist Egan gives us "Sunday's Waltz" paired with "Solo Double O," which may not win him any dance music ribbons for timing or tempo but nonetheless are striking melodies that demonstrate his flair for music composition and experimentation.

Horan's evocative and haunting "My Dream of You" takes both the title and inspiration from a novel and the writings of the late Nuala O Faolain who succumbed to cancer earlier this year, allowing Horan to use her classical training in Irish air mode in a remembrance of the Irish writer who touched her life.

She adds powerful sparks and fiddling to her "Tune for Sharon" and "John Riordan's Heels," and also to box player McAuley's offerings on other tracks like "Eoin Bear's Reel and "Hoban's White House," the latter a nod to James Hoban from Kilkenny who designed the White House in D.C.

McElholm's accompanying skills on guitar, piano and vocals deserve recognition as well for the solid underpinning and enhancement of his bandmates.

Phelan makes a very impressive debut here on the album and on the stage shows at ICONS and Sullivan Hall that I witnessed recently. She has great promise for however long she wants to postpone her medical career while traveling the world with Solas.

Solas is attracted to old, new and borrowed songs while giving them a very fresh take, so Phelan will have to tackle a wide range of material. Her vocal command on "Seven Curses," "Mollai na gCuach Ni Chulleanin," "Wounded Huzzar" and Rickie Lee Jones' "Sailor Song" gives ample evidence that she is well able for the task and could very well blossom as a singer of the quality of Casey or Scanlon with more seasoning.

Also contributing musically to the recording are base player Chico Huff, John Anthony on drum, Natalie Haas on cello and Dirk Powell on acoustic base, who also helped produce the guest appearance of the Canadian group the Duhks for a couple of tracks here, including Antje Duvekot's up tempo "Merry Go Round" which is a winner.

Incorporating crossover talent into their already imaginative and tight arrangements is an asset with Solas where the seams are hard to detect when the added texture is mixed into a smooth finish.

The new recording is fun and shows a well-rounded Solas ensemble that even added a bit of dress-up style for the album photo shoot. As they head into their 13th year maybe it will be their luckiest one so far, but with talent like this they will probably make their own luck and along the way more love and laughter we all can share.

The album can be ordered through www.compassrecords.com. For more details on Solas go to www.solasmusic.com.

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