The story of the Irish-American group Solas is, in some ways, the story of Irish music over the past 20 years: a straddling of tradition and innovation; a push into new territory that still holds fast to its musical homeland.
The group has released an album to mark its 20th anniversary, All These Years, and is embarking on a year-long tour. Befitting this band of thoughtful musicians, they are not simply looking backwards.
The band's origins were almost as informal as a seisun at a local pub. Multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, who was born Pennsylvania, but raised in Ireland and resettled in America, said he was invited to gather a few musicians for a music festival in Massachusetts and pulled together fiddler Winifred Horan, guitarist John Doyle and accordionist John Williams. They found themselves, Egan said, "going up for the weekend without much really much of a plan and even really any kind of rehearsal."
After a good reception by the audience and a shared sense that they worked well together, Egan said he began to think: "I'd love to have a band and make one album," adding, "That was the sole extent of my ambition."
Thinking the nascent band would need a vocalist to make the album, Egan said, they found Karan Casey, an Irish singer who had just arrived in the U.S. and who, it turned out, lived three doors down from his building in Manhattan. Their eponymous debut album in 1996 was a critical and popular success and led to some touring, which in turn led them to a second album.
"Then all of a sudden you are on the treadmill of being a band," he said. "It was less 'we're going to be a band' and more of 'Oh, we're a band now.'"
Because the individual band members were already noted musicians, Solas was routinely dubbed an "Irish-American supergroup," though Egan said he "definitely would have been more comfortable without that sort of tag."
Over the years, band members came and went and interest in Irish music exploded in part due to the widespread success of "Riverdance" and other big, Irish-themed stage shows.
Egan noted that Solas certainly benefitted from the elevated interest in Irish music, but noted how there is so "much amazing music being made" that goes unnoticed in part because the spectacle shows are "blocking the sun."
"It's an odd sort of time for the traditional arts," he said.
For the anniversary album, Egan said they had considered re-playing their repertoire, but settled on the idea of recording new songs, but working with the six singers and other musicians that have been with the band over the years.
"There was a sort of madness in that as well," he said, "but it was a sort of madness that we were willing to take on."
With a lot of back and forth, they matched new songs with each of the singers. Accommodating everyone's schedule meant that the basic tracks were pretty much recorded live across a short period of time in the studio.
"It made it a bit more of a challenge," he said. "It was nice to record that way again."
The album, like its 20 years of predecessors, is rooted in Irish traditional music, but also includes songs that in a sense follow the Irish diaspora. At times, the Irish sounds seem to bounce off the Appalachian Mountains. The band also can leave the rural spirit behind and play something elegant such as the piano-based title tune, an elegiac waltz that's fragile and lovely.
Egan said when the band decides to take up a new song, "Number one, it needs to be a strong song....Whether it's a traditional or a contemporary song, it has to be something that we can bring something to and make our own in some way."
The instrumentalists always play with feeling and finesse, whether it's a spirited reel or a doleful air, but the band's not-so-secret weapon has always been their use of great vocalists who do not just sing beautifully, but bring a narrative heft through heartfelt and nuanced lyrics. The latest singer they are working with is Moira Smiley, who has had her own eclectic career with, among others, Tuneyards.
The 2016 tour will feature Smiley for the most part, but will find the members also performing with their original singer, Casey. Egan noted that they are starting off with a long string of shows across America.
"By the end of March, we will definitely feel like we've been at this for twenty years," he said with a laugh. "We try not to do that to ourselves anymore - we are definitely not in our twenties anymore."
"We feel fortunate that we can still be doing this as the band this many years later," he said. "It's not something to be taken for granted."
An earlier reunion of the band:
From the group's "Shamrock City" album
With singer Rhiannon Giddens