Patrick O’Donnell penned this review.
I went to bed with their music in my head, and when I woke up the next morning, it was still there. That’s just how good Solas’ March 21 show at Rosebud in Pittsburgh was. Strains of “Black Annis,” “Darkness Darkness” and “Dignity” ran through my dreams all night, haunting me with melodies I could clearly hear but not quite grasp in the darkness of sleep.
When music has that kind of power, you know it’s something extra above the ordinary, super beyond the natural. And as for the musicians that deliver it, what can be said about them that doesn’t pale in comparison to what their performance says for them?
When Solas debuted in 1996, their music promised they’d be going places. Now, six years and five albums later, they’ve delivered on their promise and beyond.
And they’re still “going places.”
Take the cover of their new CD, The Edge of Silence. It shows the five-member group sitting in a SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority) station like they’re ready to hit the road.
Which they did, in support of the same album. And on an unseasonably cold, snowy, icy Thursday in March, they stopped in Pittsburgh’s Strip District long enough to warm things up.
Opening the show was Antje Duvekot, a German singer-songwriter whose writing and vocal talents are featured on The Edge of Silence. Her moody four-song set was just enough to get the audience ready for Solas.
When the group finally did take the stage, the crowd–not a full house but a fair size considering the weather–was ready.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t know all the songs Solas performed, and they didn’t always tell the audience what they were playing. Their opener, still a mystery to me, served as a sort of warm-up, giving the sound man enough time to make adjustments so that Deirdre Scanlan’s vocals weren’t drowned out by Winifred Horan’s furious fiddling and guest musician Ben Whitman’s percussion.
From there, things only got better. Their second song, the ethereal “Darkness, Darkness,” was straight off the new album and clean as a whistle. Sound problems were mostly straightened out, and the band was already in full stride.
One of the most impressive things about this performance was that it sounded so clean and complete. Often when performers take the stage, their music doesn’t sound as full or polished as it does on the album. Studio magic can tidy up tracks, flesh them out and layer sounds to provide a depth the band would otherwise lack. And the bands, so used to relying on this, don’t know what to do when they hit the stage with just the “bare bones.” The performance suffers, and the audience feels cheated.
On The Edge of Silence, Solas has added a few electronic dashes of spice: some synthesized sounds here, a little programming there. But what they serve up on stage is so darn good, it’s hard to remember just what they “filled in” on the studio version. They haven’t become so dependent on electronic wizardry that they’ve forgotten how to reach the soul of the music.
After “Darkness,” flutist Seamus Egan (who also plays tin whistle, low whistle, mandolin, banjo and bodhran) introduced “Charmy Chaplain,” the second track on Edge. Alluding, it seems, to an otherworldy encounter, he said the song was “brought to them” one night while they were working on the album in upstate New York, and they just had to record it. The rollicking, humourous fiddle-driven tune lightened the somber mood set by “Darkness” and had the audience smiling in no time.
On the late Nick Drake’s “Clothes of Sand,” accordion player Mick McAuley’s vocals competed with the rest of the band for a good portion of this melancholy tune about the distance that change can put between people. Still, the performance was moving and brought the audience back to reality.
Scanlan then introduced Duvekot, bringing her up on stage and explaining that she not only wrote two of the songs on Edge, but performs backup vocals as well. Duvekot joined them for the haunting “Black Annis,” the tale of a mythical demon hag who enslaves children. The chilling lyrics suggest multiple meanings behind the song; the terrible “Black Annis” becomes a metaphor for each and every horror some children are subjected to as they grow.
Performing songs including Bob Dylan’s “Dignity,” “Maybe in a Prayer,” and “Beck Street” from the new album, plus “Pastures of Plenty” from The Words That Remain, “When My Love And I Parted” from The Hour Before Dawn, and a number of reels/jigs, Solas held the audience’s attention with the grip of a vice through the course of about two hours.
Scanlan’s strong vocals and easy-going banter with the crowd impressed me, but the thing that impressed me the most was what she didn’t do: stand at the front of the stage during instrumentals. Whenever a tune didn’t feature her on vocals, she took a seat or stood to the rear and away from the rest of the band. Many lead singers too often look like fools during tunes that don’t feature them, standing there slapping tambourines or dancing around like a scarecrow in a windstorm. By moving backstage during instrumentals, Scanlan left the attention where it deserved to be: on the band.
As the show wrapped up, Egan, McCauley, Whitman and guitarist Donal Clancy left the stage. Horan, Scanlan and bassist Chico Huff remained. “I like to call this part Chico and the Chicettes,” Scanlan joked, before the trio broke into a very Susan McKeownish-sounding “When My Love And I Parted.”
They then left the stage, wishing all a good night, but soon the whole band returned for an encore, performing a foot-stomping version of “The Floating Bowl.” Clancy showed his mettle when a guitar string broke during the lively set; he motioned to the others to keep going while he quickly fixed and quietly tuned the string. When the job was done, he jumped back in for a big finish.
This was the kind of night you don’t want to see end; I could have listened to Solas play until they illuminated the morning. But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. As the band left the stage and the audience filtered out, I knew I’d just seen a performance that would stick with me for a long, long time.
Little did I know it would be replayed in my dreams.
(Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, March 21, 2002)