Solas stepped out onto the world stage in 1996, when Irish music was poised at the brink of a new era of innovation and popularity. The five young musicians who made up the band at the time had no idea that they were to be a galvanizing element in the Irish music scene -- a lightening rod of talent and inspiration that set new standards for musicianship, repertoire, and intensity. "We thought we were doing a one-off project," says multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan with a smile, ten years after the fact. Egan and fiddler Winifred Horan have remained with the band through a decade that has encompassed seven albums, a series of evolving lineups, endless international touring and critical acclaim.
"When we made the first record," Egan recalls, "there was no plan to make a second. But there was such a positive reaction -- we were as surprised as anyone." Almost instantly, the band's refreshing take on traditional Irish music won them accolades the world over. Unrelentingly hard-driving, yet tightly arranged and precise, Solas took an ancient music and made it contemporary. Vocal numbers -- initially featuring singer Karan Casey, and subsequently Deirdre Scanlan -- were delicate and vulnerable, yet underpinned by steely determination. Their willingness to marry tradition with innovation and push ahead made them a beacon to both audiences and their fellow musicians.
The band's demanding schedule of recording and performing left little time for Egan and his cohorts to reflect on what they had accomplished. "We always have to be able to move on quickly," Egan explains. "We have so many commitments. If we had more time to think about what we'd been through or what we're facing at any given moment, we may stay home in bed with the lights off and never leave the house." Yet an offhand remark heard on tour last year prompted the discussions that lead to what eventually became Reunion: A Decade of Solas. "Someone said, "Oh, by the way next year it will be ten years,"" Egan remembers. "That set the wheels in motion, and by the end of the tour we decided to maybe put on a concert to celebrate. But we then asked ourselves, why stop there? We decided to see if the past members were interested in coming back."
Much to the band's delight, past Solas members such as vocalist Karan Casey, guitarist John Doyle, guitarist Donal Clancy, and accordionist John Williams were also intrigued by the notion. "From then," Egan says, "the hardest thing was just getting everyone in one place. It took two or four months just to nail down the time and place for it. It was logistically difficult to corral, but it was worth it."
The concept for the band's tenth anniversary celebration was, on paper, quite simple: to reunite as many past Solas lineups as possible to cover the widest breadth of Solas repertoire ever attempted in one concert. "We started writing out lists of material and lineups from over the years, and what material represented each lineup best," Egan explains, "Then we had to think about what worked as a show. We didn't just want to recreate old versions of Solas -- we also wanted to combine lineups, too, which for ourselves and our fans was fun. We wanted to hear what it would be like to have Karan singing harmony on something Deidre sang, or vice versa. We don't have a chance to do this very often!"
The band chose to hold the concert in Philadelphia. "We needed to do this on familiar turf," says Egan, "and a lot of the history of the band is in Philadelphia. Most of our records were made here. I had moved back five years ago and it became a home base for the band. And a lot of the folks we've worked with over the years were here." With a date and location in place and the songs selected, the band had only a brief time to rehearse nearly three hours of music. "We had two days -- not even two full days. Some folks were only there for one day. But there was a fair bit of work done beforehand, and a clear idea of what we needed."
Joining the past and current lineups of Solas were several Philadelphia-based musicians who had appeared on the band's recordings over the years. "It was great to play with the support musicians that we recorded with -- Ben Wittman, Chico Huff, John Anthony and Michael Aharon," says Egan. "We have not really had a chance to play live with them on an ongoing basis, and they helped us pull this show off."
"We worked up twenty-five or twenty-six pieces of music," Egan continues, "many of which hadn't been played in ten years. It could have been a disaster. If we had had time, we could have thought of all the things that could go wrong -- thankfully we didn't! Almost everything that happened that night is on either the CD or the DVD."
The performance that night was captured on film and tape, and will be released by Compass Records in the Spring of 2006 as Reunion: A Decade of Solas. The performances are joyous, with the youthful intensity of ten years prior made all the more powerful by the group members" collective and individual experiences since. "Not even considering the lineup changes," Egan ponders, "ten years is a long time to be in the same band. I was thrilled everyone was interested in coming back and willing to revisit this music. It was really amazing how fast the songs and tunes came back -- it felt like we'd been playing them all along. With the different lineups, it felt like we had just finished playing a gig."
"But," he adds, "there are differences between then and now. Back then we were so young -- just starting out. Over the years everyone's been involved in their own things, everyone has come into their own as solo performers. Having that dynamic in the group was fantastic -- everyone coming back with an earned sense of confidence."
Though it required months of preparation, expedient yet concentrated rehearsals, and a demanding three-hour performance, the making of Reunion seemed to go by in the blink of an eye. After a brief moment of introspection, Egan has again set his sights to what is ahead of him. "We may add some older stuff into our sets to shake things up -- this performance definitely reminded us of the strength of our catalog. But more than that, it's given us the inspiration to go back into the studio to record new things -- to go forward."
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