Irish music may be the hottest commodity in world music these days. Just look at the enormous success of "Riverdance" and its progeny and the ubiquitous impact of the "Titanic" soundtrack.
If those represent the most far-reaching, popularizing aspects of Celtic musical culture, the group Solas may be the most persuasively fascinating new Irish band of the last few years. It is, wrote the Wall Street Journal, "an Irish traditional band bearing all the marks of greatness."
When Solas performs at the Irvine Barclay Theatre tonight--appropriately, St. Patrick's Day--it may, however, appear to be something more than a "traditional band."
Recent reviews, noting band members' leather pants, tie-dyed shirts and earrings, suggested that Solas (which in the Irish language translates to "light") looks more like an American rock band than a folk outfit.
That's not surprising, given the musicians' origins. Guitarist-flutist-multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Ireland, and violinist Winifred Horan is a native New Yorker. The others--singer Karan Casey, guitarist-singer John Doyle and accordionist Mick McAuley (who replaced original member John Williams in 1997)--are all Irish-born.
In fact, the players got together in New York, where most were living when Solas was organized in early 1996.
"I'd been playing with John Doyle in various settings," Egan said. "Around that time we were asked to play at a festival. So we thought, 'Let's do something different and get some folks that we would like to play with but haven't had the opportunity to do that.' So we did that, got a positive reaction in early '96 and enjoyed playing with each other."
A few more informal gigs followed, with results so positive that talk began about forming a group.
"We decided," Egan continued, "that if we were going to actually take that step, we needed to have a singer. Then we heard Karan, and, as it turned out, she actually lived down the block from Winifred and myself, just a few doors down. And that was kind of the start of the group."
It's probably pushing it to describe what resulted as an all-star group. But there's no question that each member brings solid playing skills and extensive experience to the mix. And, in Egan, the band has a virtuoso performer, a charismatic artist who is as effective on guitar, mandolin and banjo as he is on flute and tin whistle.
'It Almost Didn't Seem Real'
Even so, none of the bandmates anticipated the enthusiastic response triggered by their first album, "Solas," and the initial tour dates.
"It almost didn't seem real," Egan said. "We'd barely picked a name for the group, and suddenly we were getting all this gratifying reaction."
That was just the beginning. Release of the band's second album, "Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers," alerted the mass media to Solas. Appearances on NPR's "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Morning Edition," CNN's "World Beat" and NBC-TV's "Weekend Today" followed.
Clearly a new Irish-music star had arrived.
The Boston Globe could barely contain its enthusiasm, describing the group as "not merely America's best Irish traditional band, but maybe the world's."
Neither Egan nor the other members were ready to make such a claim. When they made their first trip to perform in Ireland, they were "naturally apprehensive" about their reception, Egan said. Despite the praise that had preceded them, they are, after all, an Irish-American band.
"We'd sort of heard through the grapevine that the record had been received positively," Egan said. "And it's always a different kettle of fish when you get there personally. But the reactions were overwhelmingly positive, and I think some of the best shows we've done have probably been over there."
New Elements on 'Words That Remain'
Over here, Solas continued its busy schedule. In its three years, Solas has recorded three albums and toured or been in the studio, according to Egan, "between seven and nine months a year."
The group's latest album, "The Words That Remain," embraces new elements. Singer Iris DeMent sings a Peggy Seeger tune, "Song of Choice"; Bela Fleck plays on two tracks, and Casey sings a lovely rendering of the Woody Guthrie American folk classic "Pastures of Plenty."
"We didn't feel it was a huge stretch to try and make these connections," said Egan, "because the influence of Irish music and Scottish music, for that matter, on American folk songs is obvious. There's really not a huge gap between them. It moved over here, hung out for a while and became another thing.
"What was important for us was to make our versions of the songs part of what we do rather than trying to make them sound more American. If we had any criteria in how we approached them, that was it--to have the music work in a way that made sense with what we do as an ensemble."
Some, but not all, of the music from the new album will turn up in the Irvine performance. Egan and the others feel a need to let their audiences hear music from the other albums, as well.
"We'll combine selections from all three records," he said. "We're still working in some of the stuff from the latest CD. You know, once you take a piece out of the studio environment, you almost have to re-form it all over again. And we're still doing that with some of the pieces."
"But there'll be plenty for the audience to hear," Egan said. "I'll be popping around from instrument to instrument, and we'll be throwing in just about everything we can do. And why not? It'll be St. Patrick's Day."
* Solas plays tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. 8 p.m. $27-$32. Presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. (949) 854-4646.