by John Kearns
How it’s New York: Solas’s music and multimedia show took place at the new venue, Subculture, below the Bleecker Street Theatre in Manhattan’s East Village. Solas fiddler Winifred Horan is from New York.
How it’s Irish:Solas is a one of the finest bands in traditional Irish music, and most of its members hail from Ireland. “Solas” is the Irish word for “light.”
On July 31, 2013, leading traditional Irish, Solas, brought its ambitious project, Shamrock City to New York for two shows at new downtown venue, Subculture, a sleek modern space reclaimed from a neglected off-off Broadway theatre. Decorated with an awareness of the Lower Manhattan neighborhood in which it finds itself, Subculture has been hosting gigs for just three months and will open officially in September.
Shamrock City is a new CD and multimedia stage show created by all-Ireland-champion musician, Seamus Egan, and Solas. Shamrock City was inspired by the story of Egan’s great-granduncle Michael Conway, who came to Philadelphia from the County Mayo in 1910 and who, three years later, fled the prejudice of the east coast for the Butte, Montana copper mines, where a job was practically guaranteed. As the CD’s liner notes explain,. “Shamrock City is the story of the Butte he may have experienced.” As the songs and tunes take us from Ireland to America and to the labor, conflicts, and celebrations of Butte, the multimedia presentation incorporates film footage, sounds of mining work, and quotes about Montana displayed on the large screen behind the band. Shamrock City‘s broad scope demonstrates that Egan is still pushing the boundaries of traditional Irish music as he has done since mixing trad with African instruments as a member of the Chanting House in the 1990s.
In keeping with the theme of pushing the boundaries of traditional music and performance, as an opening act for Solas, the Brooklyn-based dance troupe, Hammerstep, brought its combination of hip hop and step dancing to the Subculture stage.
A lone dancer dressed in black stepped out between the propped-up instruments and began beatboxing and stepdancing at the same time, his toe tapping and stomping sometimes accompanying and other times answering his beats. It was a revelatory and exciting performance that received an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. For a second number, another black-clad dancer appeared. With lights down, their backs to the audience, and blue and white lights on either shoe, the pair performed a thunderous dance with unsuppressable energy, crisscrossing their feet with each other’s to create a memorable light show.
Then Solas took to the stage and Seamus Egan introduced the idea behind his Shamrock City. He explained that it was a story of hope and struggle, hard work, and uproarious nights. It was also the story, Egan quipped, of “good luck and bad luck. After all, the Irish were involved.”
The lights went down and a chorus of voices could be heard telling fragments of stories well known to any immigrant family, while text and images displayed on the screen. The voices and text told of how “my grandfather left Ireland in 1910,” “my great-grandmother left in 1890,” the multiplication of these overlapping tales and their concluding sentence turning them poignant, “It was the saddest day of his life.”
Solas began with a song of emigration, “Far Americay.” As footage of emigrants in steerage and sepia-toned images of Saint Patrick’s Day parades in frontier towns played, Solas sang:
There’s light down in these tunnels
It’s gonna be ok
My blood swims through the mountains of far Americay
“Tell God and the Devil” had an infectious foot-tapping rhythm as spirited as the dancers of Hammerstep. Its defiant, memorable chorus boasts, “Tell God and the Devil they can try/But today’s not going to be the day we die.” Sung with verve by Noriana Kennedy, the song featured quick riffs on Winifred Horan’s fiddle answering the verses.
“Michael Conway,” Egan explained, was the song that started the whole Shamrock City project. The waltz in a style reminiscent of a 19th century folk song tells the story of Egan’s great-granduncle who left Mayo, landed in Philadelphia, and headed to Butte, where he took part in fights and was beaten to death by the police. As the multimedia presentation played the sights and sounds of the hard and dangerous work of copper mining, accordionist Mick McAuley sang:
We were destined for the rich land
Fate owns us all from birth
We were bound for Butte, Montana
The richest hill on earth
Solas followed this slow song with an up-tempo, fiery set of reels with the vigor and tightness that fans have come to expect, the band locked onto the beat kept by the amplified stompings of Egan. At the end, the set slowed way down at the end to become a melody reminiscent of that of “Michael Conway.”
“Welcome to the Unknown” was a “landscapey” instrumental waltz tune more American than Irish, written and performed by Winnifred Horan. The piece imagines the perceptions of immigrants as they landed in the new world. The compostion’s mood is serious but not melancholy, and its deep fiddle tones sounded contemplative, almost resigned.
Solas picked up the tempo again with another set of reels, this time in old-time American bluegrass style, before turning its attention to the workers’ struggles of Butte with, “The Labour Song.” Mick McAuley introduced the defiant song with a little background. For years Marcus Daly, a Butte copper-mine owner from Ireland, took great pride in providing good working conditions for his miners . However, in the end he could not resist the offers of The Standard Oil Company to buy his mine. As had happened in Pennsylvania during the Molly Maguire era, when the mines were owned by a large conglomerate, conditions deteriorated and unions grew far weaker.
McAuley said the song was “dedicated to all those who stand up to the bullying of big companies” and to the governments that often help them. In “The Labour Song” labor organizers are accused of being anti-American or unpatriotic, called “Commies in disguise.” This charge is answered with the lines, “It doesn’t mean we don’t love our country/Because we love our families.”
Life underground in the copper mines of Butte was tough, Egan explaned, and was rough and tumble above ground, too. Butte’s bars never closed — they didn’t even have locks on the doors. Plus, there were gambling houses and businesses of ill-repute who were quite willing to take the miners’ money as well.
Noriana Kennedy with Winifred Horan
“Lay Your Money Down,” another bouncy toe tapper, showcased the soulful, emotive voice of Noriana Kennedy, singing, “You can’t take it with you/So lay your money down…”
Egan and McAuley then began a jig on flute and accordion and were joined by Horan’s fiddle and then the Eamon McElholm’s guitar, before the band plunged into a set of reels, entitled, “High, Wide, and Handsome.”
Mick McAuley and Eamon McElholm
Solas then left Butte behind, performing a rousing Irish version of Bob Dylan’s song, “Seven Curses,” about cruel hanging judge who took a daughter’s virginity as a price for her father’s life but hanged the father anyway. The daughter pronounces seven curses on the judge.
The band concluded the show with a final set of white-hot reels, beginning with Egan’s flute and McElholm’s guitar, adding McAuley’s accordion and then Horan’s fiddle. Then Egan put down his flute and picked up his banjo, and the dancers of Hammerstep reappeared to bring down the house!
Shamrock City is an impressive project and an effective, spirited, and thought-provoking show. It features a deft blending of original songs with traditional Irish and American tunes. While the lyrics could be more original in places, the show and CD succeed in telling a complicated story touching on a variety of themes — emigration, the toughness and desperation of miners’ lives, labor struggles, and the boisterous atmosphere of a boomtown. Perhaps the show could have included more about Michael Conway, whose life is the hook that pulls us into Butte, but Shamrock City captures the atmosphere of the town in his time.
The music and multimedia work well together. The sounds and visuals enhanced the musical performances, without distracting from them. Besides, your eyes seem naturally drawn toward to the lively musicians, the stomping of their feet, and the dancing of the fiddle player and singer.
This was an evening marked with consummate musicianship and energy. It is great to see the band finding new ways to tell stories and delight its audience. I hope Solas does not leave it so long until it returns to New York again.
Also, keep an eye out for Subculture’s official opening in September!