IAN WORPOLE looks at the massive musical contributions of traditional groups Solas and Cherish the Ladies, who both reach major milestones this year.
When I was a lad growing up in post WWII England, festive holidays were always about food. One of the lesser but still vital days was Shrove Tuesday, AKA Pancake Day. Or should it be the other way round? We knew there was some religious context, there usually was with holidays, but all it meant to us skinny wretches was that dinner on this special evening would consist of plate after plate of tossed pancakes, basically crepes topped with sugar and lemon juice.
We couldn’t cram down enough of ’em, and compared quantities on the playground the next day – three, six, two dozen, more. But here’s the thing – try persuading any Mum to whip up plain flour, an egg, sugar and lemon on any other day of the year and rest assured, one flip of the frying pan and the heavens would open and Mum would be a goner! So, pancakes one day a year, it was a bleak and cruel world back then. But what has this got to do with a music column? Well, it strikes me that Irish music has a bit of that pancake syndrome. One note of a jig on the radio station and one is instantly alerted to the imminence of St. Patrick’s Day. Come March 18th though, and it’s all over for another year.
The vast majority of Americans are firmly convinced that Paddy’s Day is the only time of the year they are allowed to listen to the stuff, and what they usually get to hear on the radio is from the bargain bin in the first place. Considering the quality of the new music these days, this is a great shame; they have no idea what they’re missing.
Two bands of superlative talent share anniversaries this year, and anyone that’ s ever tried putting a band together and keeping it together, knows what an achievement any kind of anniversary can be. Solas, possibly the most dynamic Irish-American band out there, is ten years young and still going strong. To celebrate, they got old and new band members together for a reunion concert, which took place in Philadelphia, the band’s home base. Compass records has now released a CD/DVD of the event, titled Reunion, a decade of Solas.
The CD/DVD format is becoming ever more popular, and for very good reason, certainly in this case. The concert DVD shows the band at their exuberant best, with behind- the-scenes footage and songs not included on the CD. If you’re not familiar with Solas, this double effort would be a perfect place to start, as it pretty much contains a retrospective of their material, but with dynamic live re-interpretations and in many cases eight or ten players going at it. And what players! These are the cream of contemporary Irish musicians, all with various solo and other band CDs to their credit. Founding members Seamus Egan and Winifred Horan along with current member Mick McAuley, Deirdre Scanlon and Eamon McElholm are joined by past members Karen Casey, John Williams, Donal Clancy, Antje Duvekot and the mighty John Doyle. Accompanied by an array of percussion and bass-playing pals, the whole ensemble produces a dizzying wall of sound that is totally exhilarating.
Seamus Egan, who was born in Pennsylvania but spent much time in County Mayo, is a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and composer, and wrote the soundtrack for the film The Brothers McMullen. His three solo albums demonstrate the depth of his traditional roots, overlaying flute, mandolin, banjo, whistle, guitars and bodhrán. When I saw Solas recently at Makor in New York what particularly impressed me was his solo guitar work; the man can play anything. Along with Winifred Horan, the classically trained fiddler, he leads the band in a mind- boggling array of tunes and songs, old and new. Their albums contain cover versions of Nick Drake, Tom Waits, Richard Shindell along with much traditional and original material. Their traditional interpretations of these tunes are so complex that they bear little resemblance to the originals.
One of my favorite aspects of the band is indeed their passionate embrace of song. So many traditional Irish bands have such a great love of the tunes that they treat a song as something of an intermission, with half-hearted accompaniment, maybe some moody synthesizer, and then it’s “OK lads, back to the tunes.” Solas, on the other hand, launches into any song with the same gusto and skill they reserve for a set of tunes, using the voice as yet another layer of texture. Even as Deirdre Scanlon is singing her heart out, Winifred will be throwing herself into a staccato rhythm that would exhaust a lesser fiddler. (Our Deirdre demonstrated at Makor that she’s a mean fiddler herself, and a great wit).
Singer Karen Casey rejoins the band for the anniversary concert; Karen has gone on to a successful solo career. Her voice is easily as beautiful as any of the “Celtic Women” troupe currently hitting it huge on the mega-glitzy concert circuit, but she has chosen to remain true to a simpler style, usually accompanied by just accordion and guitar and touring clubs and music festivals to much acclaim. It’s great to hear Karen back with Solas, singing old favorites like “Newry” “Highwayman” and “Pastures of Plenty.”
Likewise, it’s great to hear John Williams back on accordion and John Doyle on guitar; while at the same time current accordion player Mick McAuley and guitarist/pianist Eamon McElholm readily fill their shoes. McAuley has a fine CD out with Winifred Horan, recently reviewed in these pages, and McElholm is a noted songwriter and singer in his own right. The pedigree of this band is impeccable, with a powerhouse sound that leaves you feeling totally exhilarated – no Celtic gloom for these guys!
My personal favorite out of many is “On a Sea of Fleur de Lys,” a Richard Shindell song that Solas has made all their own and the dynamics of which would give any band in the world a run for their money. This brings me back to my original point about how much of a pity it is you might only get to hear it around St. Paddy’s Day, if you’re lucky. If you’re a fan of contemporary Celtic music with a big sound, don’t wait for that; buy all of Solas’ CDs. You will love them. Their website is: www.solasmusic.com
Winifred Horan is an alumni of my next band, and if you read the history of almost any virtuoso woman fiddler, Eileen Ivers amongst them, you’ll find the same – all have put in their time with the venerable Cherish the Ladies, who celebrate their 20th anniversary this year.
Twenty years ago Mick Moloney had an idea for a one-off concert featuring all women performers that was so successful the band stayed together and began recording and touring. (The name Cherish the Ladies is taken from a traditional Irish jig). In twenty years the band has been through many lineup changes, and throughout everything has garnered awards such as Best Musical Group of the Year by the BBC, and performed and recorded with Emmylou Harris, the Chieftains, and James Taylor to name a few, and dozens of symphony orchestras, not least being the “Celtic Album,” a collaboration with the Boston Pops Orchestra that led to a 1999 Grammy nomination.
One reason for Cherish the Ladies’ longevity is the sheer talent and charisma of their leader and founding member, Joanie Madden. One of the world’s great whistle and flute players, Joanie effortlessly moves from virtuoso playing to stand-up comic and musical historian; I’ve had the privilege of playing along with her up at the East Durham festival sessions, and she has a knack of making you feel as though she’s known you all her life. One of the best musical moments I’ve known is an impromptu performance of her with Mary Bergin, the whistle player, that was absolutely breathtaking.
Recently, Cherish the Ladies performed an unusual concert at Hunter College in New York. Joanie recruited past members of the band for an evening with their dads in a performance called “Father to Daughter: a Cherish Tradition.” It consisted of Joanie with her dad, Joe, on accordion, Mary Coogan on guitar and banjo with Jim Coogan on accordion, Mary Rafferty, accordion, concertina, with Mike Rafferty on flute, Deirdre Connolly, whistle and vocals, with Mattie Connolly on uilleann pipes, and Marie Reilly on fiddle and Martin Reilly on whistles.
As you can imagine, the craic was mighty and the music a joy to hear. Here you had the sheer essence of traditional Irish playing, all the dads hailing from various parts of the Old Country, settled in America and raising hugely talented Irish-American daughters that carry on the tradition. Stretching across a huge stage in pairs, all recounted family histories and launched into favorite tunes. The audience was also treated to perfor- mances by world champion stepdancers John Jennings and Sinead Lawler Corrigan. It was a classic evening.
To get a taste of why this band has been in business for so long, their latest CD, Woman of the House, recorded in Scotland and produced by Phil Cunningham, offers a great collection of tunes and songs and features guests such as Kate Rusby and Sharon Shannon. It’s a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with the group, but there’s much more, in particular At Home, which includes many family members. To learn more about the band and their various group and solo recordings, visit www.cherishtheladies.com. So, ten years and twenty years for two great bands, may they continue for many more. And don’t forget – traditional music is not just for St. Pat’s, it’s for all year long. Right, I’m off to IHOP. ♦