Solas CSPS Hall Cedar Rapids, IA 3-11-15

Cedar Rapids, Iowa (March 11, 2015)
“Thanks to heavy levels of medication…” Ok, so hearing about “medication” from a band member invites some obvious jokes, but in this case it’s a sincere point made by Solas fiddle player Winifred Horan. It matters to this review because at the outset of the current tour, Winifred fell and broke her left collar bone. That’s the one a fiddle player presses her instrument against with her chin. Winifred could no longer do that without causing a lot of pain. So her solution, other than the medication, was to play sitting down, supporting her violin primarily with her left hand (a no no for violinists) and supporting her left arm on her knee. All in all a rather awkward arrangement.   This matters because despite the awkward (and obviously uncomfortable) playing position, Winifred displayed the virtuosity for which she and other members of Solas are known. She played as well with about the worst sort of injury a fiddle player could have to deal with as many Celtic fiddlers do when healthy. That is why this little story matters:

Winifred, and the rest of Solas are simply that good.   Founding members Winifred and Seamus Egan (flute, tenor banjo, mandolin, tin whistle, low whistle, guitars, bodhran) along with veteran members Mick McAuley (accordions, concertina, low whistle, vocals) and Eamon McElholm (guitars, keyboards, vocals) were joined on this performance by Moira Smiley (vocals, banjo). Winifred and Seamus have been playing together for two decades, and it shows as the entire band displays an effortless cohesion in weaving complex melodies together, often at breathtaking speed.  As with most Celtic bands, Solas offered a mix of instrumental and vocal tunes, both traditional and original. What set them apart is the level of musicianship. (That’s not to say other Celtic bands lack chops: the concert at CSPS Hall by Full Set less than a week earlier certainly demonstrated their own musicianship.) What enthralled me was the degree of difficulty and complexity of some of the songs Solas played, and how effortless it appeared for them to play them. I guess I would say that to me, Solas liked to show off their skills, without really appearing to show them off. Kind of like Han Solo telling Chewbacca to “Fly casual”: They all made it look so easy.  They played a number of songs from their latest album, “Shamrock City”, a musical tribute to the history of the Irish during the copper boom in Butte, Montana. Two songs from that album that struck me most were“Tell God and the Devil” and “Am I Born to Die?” The first is a foot stomping, better-get-up-and-dance number talking about the rough and tumble life of the Irish copper miners. It celebrates the brave, even defiant attitude of the miners who descended deep into the earth at the very peril of their lives to mine copper ore.  This sentiment is contrasted by the lyrics and subdued, melancholy tone of “Am I Born to Die”. The song questions whether all there is to life is to toil until death, then face judgment. Moira Smiley sang it with such aching solemnity that I at once wanted to reach out and embrace her, but also felt like approaching her would violate some sort of sacred space created by her performance of the song.   Any great band can create a myriad of moods within the audience, without it seeming discordant or pretentious. Solas has mastered that skill, the alchemy of musical mood making that leaves a memory of the concert that ranges from an irresistible desire to dance to thoughtful contemplation on the meaning of life.  Solas has been to CSPS Hall three times before, but all of those shows were before the 2008 flood. I for one am hoping they don’t take as long to return. The full house audience obviously felt the same way, maintaining a rousing ovation long after the band ended their encore.


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