I've raved about Solas before, and this concert, circa 1998, comes from the Karan Casey era of the band, when the band won me over at a show on 21st Street in NYC. Casey's wavery yet distinctive voice, the stunning arrangements, the impeccable taste in material, and the strong musicianship made this an evening to remember. When writing about The Words that Remain, I said that, "[t]he overwhelming thing about seeing Solas live is the impression of sophistication and restraint in instrumental arrangement that enables vocalist Karen Casey to convey tenderness and poignancy without becoming shrill or cute ... Casey has a beautiful voice that communicates toughness as well as a range of unhappy emotions. Instrumentals buffer the sad stories, adding some upbeat moments that avoid being overly bright."
Seamus Egan ( flute, tenor banjo, mandolin, tin whistle, low whistle, guitars, bodhran) is still the driving force behind the band, as well as working on sound tracks (Brothers McMullen, Dead Man Walking) and solo albums. Vocalist Karen Casey has moved on to a solo career, with Diedre Scanlon now providing vocals for the band. John Doyle has also moved on, replaced by Eamon McElholm (guitars, vocals, keyboards) (guitar, vocals) while Winifred Horan (fiddle, vocals), and Mick McAuley (button accordion, concertina, piano accordion, low whistle, backing vocal) remain with the band, Horan having recently released a solo album to some acclaim. Although the band has continued to grow from strength to strength over the years, this era was certainly one to be remembered and appreciated. Having seen the band when they were performing these songs, I can attest that Live captures the excitement and the fire of the band.
The DVD also offers some of the features that have made this format so successful, including flexibility and ease of navigation -- although this is not a complicated offering, having been converted from a Vermont Public Television special. Both the instrumentals and the songs are performed with the ease and elegance that marks the band's live performances -- with the seeming spontaneity that is polished out during the production of studion albums. Several performances are especially notable. "Roger the Miller" is a comic diatribe about a man who courts a woman... or is it her father's grey mare he's really after? Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" is fabulous, as is "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" and the closing number, "The Newry Highwayman."
And now for the question you may have been waiting for: should I part with my hard-earned cash for this DVD; will I enjoy it as much as I would a CD, and how many times will I actually watch this DVD? After all when visuals are paired with audio, strange things can happen. I'd have to answer yes, you will watch this disc, and I believe that it will be very popular with some audiences. I must proceed with caution here, because I'm thinking that watching people play is a great pasttime for young, budding musicians who can't go to the pub, and whose parents may not be able to shell out the cash, or keep them up past their bedtimes when musicians visit a city near them. Mind you, I've seen Riverdance so many times I could probably narrate it myself, and years later I'm still taking the wee wild ones to dance class, so I know whereof I speak.
Will the humour get old? Probably -- after all, there's only so many times a person can hear that joke about going to see Santa's grave without groaning. But overall the banter between songs and the interviews are interesting and avoid things that one might find annoying on repeated listening. Because the band hail from both sides of the Atlantic, the comments about songs commemorating places they've never seen ("We heard this is about a place in County Clare, but we don't really know because none of us have been there.") will ring true for musicians who probably get many of their tunes from either their teachers or CDs. And Live does one thing that CDs often fail to do: it shows accomplished musicians actually playing, conveying a great sense of the music, and what it means to produce it. For this reason alone, I recommend that young musicians, parents and novice players snap up this disc. Those who may want to recapture the joy of seeing the band live will want to pick it up as well, but for me the main benefit of ownership is in communicating the love of the playing to those who may not be able to be exposed to as many live performances, or sessions, as they would like.
Will it replace a real music community? Absolutely not, but with a love of the music cultivated, the novice player will find his or her own companions with whom to explore and enjoy this tradition. In the mean time, and for parents, Solas Live is an enjoyable way to experience the joy of playing Irish traditional music in a format that will stand up to repeated viewing.
Green Man Review has also reviewed Solas's The Edge of Silence and The Hour Before Dawn
Solas has a Web site