Ten years, three line-ups, fourteen musicians – and one superb retrospective live show.
Label: Compass Records
DVD Time: 104 Minutes / 16 tracks Bonus: 30 minutes / 9 tracks.
DVD: NTSC; Aspect ratio 16:9; all regions; 5.1 surround sound.
There are plenty of artists working in the Celtic genre, but none (with the exception of Iona) who excite with a new release more than Solas (meaning 'light' in Gaelic). Featuring stunning musicianship and Mairead Phelan’s ethereal vocals, their Turning Tide was among the very best albums of 2010.
This live set (sadly pre-Phelan) was recorded in Philadelphia back in 2006 to celebrate a decade of the band (this seems to be a re-launch, separating the two formats, whereas the original was a combined CD/DVD). Everyone who had been part of Solas was playing in the show.
The DVD traces the band’s history by inserting a short snatch of interviews about the line-up changes and musicians between every song, and sometimes morphing from rehearsal footage straight into the performance version. Although I initially worried that these interviews might intrude, actually this format gives a sense of direction through the life of Solas, introducing the players and their characters. If it slightly loses momentum because of these inserts, then the understanding gained makes up for it.
Sometimes concerts are about songs, but in this case the release is about the band. The quality of their musicianship and the way that they have developed are the main story. It is a delight to watch their faces as they concentrate on what they are playing and watch each other to see where they are going to take the tracks.
But some pieces are particularly breathtaking, such as “Bird in the Tree” with its sensational timing and tight togetherness. “Wind that Shakes the Barley” is another highlight.
DVD: Celtic music often blends instruments together smoothly on CD. I would recommend the DVD format, not because of the way it looks – there is inevitably a bit of messy crowding that takes a visual toll and the cameras cannot avoid each other around a stage this size – but it is great for understanding the characters and their styles.
It is this format that shows how propulsive is John Doyle’s guitar work; how lost Karan Casey gets in the song and simply who is doing what.
Founders Sean Egan and Winifred Horan are each on stage for all but one track. Egan acts as inspiring bandleader, switching from electric to acoustic guitars, banjo and flute, while fiddler Horan wears her bow away, sometimes driving the music forward and at others providing the plaintive tone of a sad song. Watching this, with all the players coming and going, shows just how much earlier musicians contributed and can make you wish that Casey and Doyle were still there.
Bonus tracks: It’s hard to see why some of these tracks are relegated to bonus selections. There may be the occasional hint of an off-note, but these are all fine performances. It is more likely that they are separated out to keep the main programme shorter, or possibly because of shaky camera work. This set, which has no interspersed interviews, is slightly more reflective.
It is also a bit more masculine. “Lowground” has seven men on stage and harmony vocals from Mick McAuley and Eamon McElholm. With Winnie and the girl singers taking a break, it feels like a different band; more of a folk-rock set up. Elsewhere, McAuley sings to a simple piano backing, with Horan joining in half-way through.
Packed with fine performances, fascinating interplay, a snatch of history and songs that hold interest across many watches, this is great value.