Corrections or additions?
This article by David McDonough was prepared for the March 12,
2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Tradition Happily Stretched: Solas
The commentary from the press all strikes a similar
note: "Traditions were happily stretched." "Broadens
approach." "Far from traditional." "Not bound by
That’s because, listening to Solas, the Irish-American band that
at the McCarter Theater in Princeton on Sunday, March 16, you sense
something different. Whether it’s "The Next Big Thing" in
Celtic music, or just a band that shines for its unique qualities,
one thing is for certain: Solas is going its own way, and very
Although these musicians are firmly rooted in the Celtic sound, they
effortlessly transcend the genre. Solas’ latest CD, "The Edge
of Silence," includes interpretations of songs by Bob Dylan, Jesse
Colin Young, Tom Waits, and some unsettling material by the young
songwriter Antje Duvekot, as well as original tunes by the group’s
members. The sound is fresh, lively, effective, and different —
as if an Irish pub had been invaded for a night by a bunch of moody,
Goth tinkers with a rare sense of rhythm.
Winifred Horan, the fiddle player, has been with Solas — the name
means light in Gaelic — since Seamus Egan formed the band almost
a decade ago. Prior to that, Horan spent a couple of years with New
Jersey area favorites Cherish The Ladies, and later with the Sharon
Shannon band. She recently released her first, well-received solo
CD, "Just One Wish."
Speaking by phone from the Philadelphia home she shares with Egan,
Win Horan is pleased by the attention garnered by her solo effort,
as well as the new Solas CD. Ten of the 11 tracks on her CD are her
own compositions, an effortless mix of styles, including a touch of
Parisian jazz from the ’20s, with waltzes, reels, and jigs in the
"Just One Wish" is a CD that can be played through once, and
then immediately played again. Writing in Irish Music magazine, Tom
Clancy says, "Her new album is laden with memorable melodies,
kinetic arrangements and diverse influences." And the Irish Echo
echoes with, "Horan’s `Just One Wish’ percolates with the life
and liveliness of the finest fiddling, in and out of trad.’"
It’s a different life than Horan follows from the one she envisioned
after her graduation from the New England Conservatory of Music.
most traditional musicians, she did not have the Celtic sound handed
down to her. Although her parents had emigrated from Ireland, and
her father was a talented musician, it was jazz and classical music
that filled the family home in Far Rockaway.
"Dad was a jazz musician — piano and trumpet," says Horan.
"I started on piano. Dad worked as a carpenter, and he picked
up an old violin, fixed it up, and gave it to me. I must have been
six or seven, and I expressed interest in taking lessons on it. That
was all you had to do in my house, and he took you up on it. At the
time we hated being carted off to lessons and all the practicing,
but looking back, he did the right thing."
She also became interested in traditional Irish dance, wining nine
North American step-dancing championships. After her Conservatory
years, it was the dancing that ultimately brought her squarely into
the world of Irish music.
"The ultimate goal then was to play in a symphony orchestra,"
reminisces Horan. "It never crossed my mind to have a solo career
— that was for the prodigies. I did audition for orchestras, but
I felt like I needed nerves of steel, and I didn’t have them. Also,
it felt too restricted and the discipline was way too serious."
Horan took a job assisting step-dancing champion Donny
Golden at a music camp, and there she met Seamus Eagan, who was
banjo and flute. Egan, now 34, was born in Hatboro, Pennsylvania,
but spent much of his childhood in Ireland. Something of a prodigy
himself, he was the winner of All-Ireland championships in four
instruments — tin whistle, flute, tenor banjo and mandolin. He
toured with fiddler Eileen Ivers (like Horan, a one-time member of
Cherish the Ladies) and singer Robbie O’Connell while still in his
teens, and released his first solo album at age 17.
"Seamus grew up playing traditional," says Horan, "but
his desire was to step outside of that as well, and that was very
appealing to me. It made me aware that more was possible."
With accordionist John Williams, guitarist John Doyle, and singer
Karan Casey taking up the cause, Solas released its first album in
1996. Attracting attention for their fine instrumentals and Casey’s
soulful vocals, their self-titled album was still fairly traditional
Now each of the successive four albums has taken the band further
into experimentation and breaking the boundaries. It has upset some
purists in the music world, who are loath to see an outstanding
band stray from the well-worn path, but Horan will argue that is not
only a musician’s right, but a duty, to go where the music takes you.
"There is no reason that any musicians should let themselves be
boxed or directed," she declares. "There are purists who are
necessary to keep the tradition alive — but first of all, define
the word `tradition.’ People use the tools that they are surrounded
with when they are young, and what they are exposed to through travel.
The world has become a much smaller place in the last 30 to 40 years,
and our ears should be open to hear and enjoy."
"Celebrating diversity should come into your art and your
she continues, " — I don’t know how it couldn’t. At the same
time, you proceed with complete and utter respect for where you came
from and what your initial tools were. That will unconsciously come
through in your playing as well."
And tradition itself can change, although perhaps too slowly for one
generation to perceive. Many of the instruments thought of as standard
today in Celtic music traveled from somewhere else. The banjo is from
Africa, the bouzouki and the accordion from Eastern Europe.
"There’s room for everything," says Horan. "If you don’t
like something, fine. But don’t close your mind and ears. I think
it’s a brilliant phenomenon that African musicians are turned on by
the Irish sound, and vice versa. Music is not a museum piece. If music
becomes a museum piece, it dies."
Another example of the enormous change that traditional music has
seen is the huge number of women now playing instruments, particularly
fiddles. There’s even a dedicated website, www.fiddlechicks.com,
of which Horan claims to have been blissfully unaware until now.
a seismic shift from the time not that long ago when women — if
they were allowed to perform at all — only sang mournful ballads
of lost love.
A generation of girls grew up believing and being told by their
they could be anything they wanted to be," says Horan. "Honestly,
it never even crosses my mind that I am stepping into a man’s world.
Now women are playing upright bass in jazz groups. It’s like when
I was a kid and the boys were going out to play baseball, I was, like,
`Where’s my glove?’ My nieces are damn good musicians and when they
are out making a living, maybe at music, it will be so many
ago that women didn’t play. When you close your eyes and listen to
a musician, you can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman. And it really
If Horan’s nieces do play professionally, they had better be damn
good, for the business have grown tough and competitive. The days
of going out on the road as a music hobbyist are in the past.
"Oh, it’s a full time business," says Horan. "I tend to
think that it has to be a full-time passion. My brother still says
to me, `When are you going to get a real job?’ Many times I have had
to do things to pay the rent, but I happen to be lucky that my music
is a full-time gig. It’s the best feeling, because I wouldn’t want
to do anything else."
"We do work hard. We tour constantly. It’s the nature of the
We’ve been through so many line-up changes — it’s like being
almost — sometimes the relationship works, some times it doesn’t.
Seamus and I are the only original members left and we decided, look,
we put so much time and work into this and we love it, we are going
to stick with it.
"Touring is really the best part of it — not the actual
traveling, that’s when it becomes a job — but when you get to
the gig and all the logistical stuff is taken care, the best part
of the day is the concert. There’s nothing like it," says Horan.
Even the group’s status as one of the best-known,
bands in its field is not always a guarantee of success.
"In terms of album sales, we’ve done fairly well for what we
says Horan. "We are working on our sixth album — that’s pretty
good for a trad band. Usually, we make a living. Sometimes it’s hard,
like last year we didn’t have a very good year financially, with
11 and all, and arts community suffering under the Bush
We suffered financially big time, to the point where I wouldn’t call
what we did last year making a living. Festivals have been cut or
canceled, things that we have been playing for years. But we’re
it out. I didn’t become a musician to become a millionaire."
Horan is looking forward to her first trip to the McCarter. And she
is pleased that a fiddler she admires, Cape Breton virtuoso Natalie
MacMaster, is sharing the bill with Solas. As much as she loves the
energy of the festival crowds, Horan, with her classical background,
has a great fondness for the intimate theater atmosphere as well.
"I like playing to crowds that don’t know us," she says.
interesting to hear the feedback. And some of the material lends
to a more eclectic sound. It’s as if you’re not out for a night of
Irish music but just a night of music. But every single audience is
different. Even if they’re not jumping around, they can still be
Solas’ CDs will be available at the concert. "The Edge of
cover shot shows Horan and Egan, with current group members Mick
(accordion), Donal Clancy (guitars, bouzouki), and vocalist Deirdre
Scanlan. They glower out from the bowels of a railroad station, on
the road to another concert which will delight audiences and confound
For a group that loves what it does, and projects that warmth to its
audience, they sure don’t smile much. But on the other end of the
phone, you can feel Win Horan smile when asked about it. She almost
giggles as she says, "I never even thought of it. Maybe we are
just serious people. Well, none of us actually like getting our
taken, maybe that has something to do with it. But that doesn’t mean
we aren’t enjoying ourselves."
— David McDonough
$30 & $35. Sunday, March 16, 7:30 p.m.
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