As it returns to Frankfort on the eve of St. Patrick's Day, the heralded Irish-American band Solas finds itself nearing an interval separating two hugely ambitious musical projects.
The first is an album built around a story of Irish immigration composed and presented from a very personal standpoint. The second is a celebration of Solas' own history — specifically, a recording that will serve as a family reunion of every singer and instrumentalist that has served in the band's ranks over the past two decades.
"It's sort of amazing, really," said Solas fiddler and co-founder Winifred Horan, who performs with the current Solas lineup at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort on Monday. "We've been touring Shamrock City, our newest album, for the last year and a half. So we're wrapping up that touring cycle. Then in May, we start recording for the 20th anniversary celebration album. We're doing half of the recording here in the States and half of it back in Ireland just because a lot of the band members and former members live there. It's all kind of crazy to think about."
Solas (Gaelic for "light") is the brainchild of Horan, a New York-born fiddler whose parents came from County Wicklow in Ireland, and multi-instrumentalist/composer Seamus Egan, a Pennsylvania native to parents of County Mayo, which became his childhood home when the family moved back to Ireland.
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Solas became a performance platform for the two's takes on Irish music tradition. Lineups fluctuated with nearly every album, but Egan and Horan remained at the helm for a string of folk-based recordings that made Solas one of the most critically acclaimed Irish-American bands on either shore.
That led to Shamrock City, a 2012 concept album that tells the story of Egan's great-great-uncle Michael Conway, and his journey to one of the more unexpected destinations for Irish immigrants: the copper mines of Butte, Mont.
The journey is explained through a series of original songs both plaintive and poetic in feel and instrumentals (including Horan's lovely Welcome the Unknown) that generously reflects Conway's homeland. An all-star guest list that includes Americana sensations Rhiannon Giddens and Aoife O'Donovan and veteran Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan helps throughout the record.
"Some of the earlier Solas albums have a ton of energy, but it's unbridled energy," Horan said. "That's all well and good. That comes from being young and new and naïve. Back then, we weren't putting any sort of parameters on anything. But as you mature as a musician and as an artist, you spend more attention to detail and content and message. That's what happened with Shamrock City.
"I think it's our most mature album, and that's not just because we're more mature. I just think, musically, thematically and continuity wise, it was a really brave move into something different."
The Frankfort concert will be one of the final performances devoted to Shamrock City. It will also mark the end of this incarnation of Solas. Last year, the band's accordionist, Mick McAuley, went on hiatus to perform on Broadway in Sting's musical The Last Ship. His replacement, Dublin's Johnny Connolly, will finish out his stint with Solas this month. Completing the group are guitarist Eamon McElholm and a new vocalist, Vermont born Moira Smiley ("She'll blow you away," Horan said.).
After a break in April, McAuley will rejoin, and work on the 20th anniversary Solas recording will commence.
"Seamus and I have seen Solas from birth until now," Horan said. "We stayed committed to it over all these years and saw it through many lineup changes, challenges and 20 years of touring. But I can honestly say that every single person that came into the band brought so much with their contributions — each and every one different, but all very powerful and beautiful."