It's busy season American band with roots in Ireland

March 12, 1998

by Ross Hamilton / photographer

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'Tis the season for shamrocks and leprechauns, smiling Irish eyes and the wearin' of the green. It seems that everybody is Irish around St. Patrick's Day.

Solas, the Irish-American quintet, will perform at Kepler Theater, Friday, March 20, at 8 p.m.

"It's a heavy touring time for us," said Seamus Egan, Solas spokesperson, composer and player of banjo, concert flute, whistles, mandolin, guitar, bodhran - an Irish drum -and other percussion.

The group is traveling in a white tour bus - they used to have a green one, Egan says - and since Feb. 20 and on through early April, Solas barely will have had a day off between cities.


The music of Solas is not the stuff of Kelly green plastic party hats and once-a-year corned beef and cabbage. It's the real thing and the band is busy well beyond the day that honors Ireland's patron saint.

"There always are places to play and always people to come out and dance," Egan says. "Irish music has always had a privileged place in the states." Egan can call Solas an American band because the group is based in Philadelphia, but the roots of their families, as well as their music, are firmly planted in the Old Country.

Egan, 28, was born in Philadelphia but went to Ireland when his parents returned to County Mayo a short time later. He was there with his family for about 10 years.

Egan has five siblings. He and his sisters would take their tin whistles for lessons once a week, and Egan says he liked playing.

Egan's family returned to Philadelphia in 1980, and he took up banjo and mandolin while in high school. He recorded his solo debut, "Traditional Music of Ireland" in 1985, recorded "When Juniper Sleeps" in 1996 and performed on the soundtrack for "Dead Man Walking." Other solo efforts include "A Week in January," (1990) which provided the foundation for his score for the 1995 film "The Brothers McMullen."

SolasCoincidence . . . or luck of the Irish?

Egan got involved with the movie about Irish-American brothers by means of a pretty amazing coincidence, he says. His car broke down, and the people who put him up for the night just happened to have a son who was working on the film. Egan brought in a couple of his CDs and he was connected.

Does he consider it the luck of the Irish? "You might say that," he says.

Another coincidence connected Solas to lead singer Karan Casey, who turned out to be Egan's neighbor on the same block in Manhattan. Casey hails from County Waterford, Ireland, and learned her vocal art from traditional singers. She also studied classical music at Dublin's Royal Irish Academy of Music and studied jazz at Long Island University.

She joined other members of the group, which includes John Doyle, who sings and plays guitars and mando-cello.

Egan credits Doyle with naming the band. "Solas" has to do with light, Egan says. "We liked the sound of it."

Winifred Horan, classically trained at New England Conservatory of Music, is the fiddler. She's played with the Sharon Shannon Band and the all-women ensemble, Cherish the Ladies.

Mick McAuley, born in Callan in County Kilkenny in 1972, now lives in Belfast. He plays button accordion and concertina, and replaced John Williams in the group in the summer of 1997.

Solos has two albums. The self-titled debut CD won a 1996 award from National Association of Independent Record Distributors for "Best Celtic/British Isles Album." "Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers," the second recording, is a collection of traditional Irish songs.

Solas appropriately records on the Shanachie label. Shanachie means "storyteller," and storytelling is a part of the tradition of Irish music, according to Egan.

Although the music of the quintet doesn't get Top 40 station play, radio has been good to Solas. The band has appeared on public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion," "Mountain Stage" and "World Cafe" programs. Last March Solas was part of an Irish radio first - a live "Sun on the Green" concert from the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn.

Egan says he looked around and saw Elvis' microphone. "It was a real thrill."

Solas mostly performs traditional Irish music, Egan says. The group's members are different people with different backgrounds, and the band is trying to meld those differences into one voice, he says.

The band plans another record; they just haven't had time to make it. Solas will head to Spain and Portugal after performances on the East Coast, then all over Europe - "the continent" - later in the summer, Egan says.

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