On March 21 as part of the Under the Beams 2015 Concert Series, Celtic band Solas brought its five principal members to New Harmony’s 360-seat Murphy Auditorium for an unforgettable evening of both traditional and original music. The first half of the concert consisted of highlights of their album “Shamrock City,” which as a body of music is fascinating, lovely, and moving. But in concert, it becomes an even more immersive experience with projected historical photos and some commentary on the Irish immigrant experience in Butte, Montana, at the turn of the century. The second half of the concert featured songs from their previous albums and some of their members’ work outside of the group. This structure worked well, putting the more emotional content first; then lightening up the mood with material that, even when somber, didn’t require the same kind of attention from the audience.
I was impressed by every aspect of this band, and this show. Of course the musicianship was remarkable (not that it’s ever anything less at an Under the Beams concert). I think everyone in the audience was completely enchanted by the lead female vocalist, Niamh Varian-Barry. She’s actually the newest band member; and having heard at least one of their previous members in that role, I think she brings something unique and exciting to the group’s sound. Founding member Seamus Egan played two kinds of flute-like whistles in addition to guitar and banjo; Mick McAuley played a button accordion; Eamon McElholm mostly played guitar; and of course the other founding member Winifred Horan was a delight to watch on the fiddle, despite a broken collarbone, which required her to sit throughout the performance. She was able to perform her beautiful bowing technique almost as expressively while sitting as while standing, I think, just judging by the videos I’ve seen.
Also impressive was the variety of tone, tempo, and style that each song highlighted. I particularly enjoyed “Girls on the Line,” which slyly begins as a slow, pensive instrumental, then turns into a speedy jig. It ends with a bookending return to the pace of its opening, a way to close what feels like a musical journey. “Lay Your Money Down” is rollicking from beginning to end, with the feel of a rough and tumble drinking song, but the lyric reveals how the local drinking and gambling establishments exploited the miners financially. “Am I Born to Die” is its opposite, solemn, dirge-like in its pace, questioning the life of toil and its ultimate conclusion and judgement.
This is one mark of a great ensemble – creating a myriad of moods, without any feeling of discord, without pretentiousness. It was a totally compelling alchemy of material, musicianship, and feeling.
The final Under the Beams Concert of the season will be April 25th. The much anticipated show will feature Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Plan a day or weekend in New Harmony at www.visitnewharmony.com.