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Interview: Singer Noriana Kennedy of Solas

Noriana Kennedy

Noriana Kennedy

What do you say when one of the world’s top Irish bands asks you to be the new lead singer?

Noriana Kennedy thought about her already thriving career. She thought about the demands of touring with a band that spends a lot of weeks on the road. She thought about time away from home and boyfriend.

But in the end, Kennedy, also a skilled banjo player, said yes—an enthusiastic yes—to Philly hometown band Solas.

Here’s how it happened.

Early last summer, Solas was performing in Dublin. Kennedy and the band’s lead singer at the time, Niamh Varian-Barry, were friends, and Kennedy asked whether she could join in, in a supporting role, and the band agreed.

“They took me up on the offer, and I did a solo set with some new songs I wanted to try out. Little did I know Niamh was leaving, and they were sussing me out for the job. A few weeks later, Winnie (Horan, the band’s fiddler and co-founder) texted me to let me know they were interested in having me join the band. I was thrilled and flattered.”

The decision was not a total no-brainer. Kennedy had just recorded an album with her trio, The Whileaways, and they were planning a tour. She also looked forward to recording her second solo album. Kennedy’s career was very much in progress.

“After a bit of thought and conversations with Seamus Egan (multi-instrumentalist and the band’s leader), it seemed right to join the band and balance all three projects.”

Joining a band as well established as Solas, on the other hand, is nothing like a no-brainer. Kennedy’s was a baptism by fire. There was no time for rehearsal in Ireland, so she joined the band for a one-month tour, starting in Philadelphia in July. There were a few days of rehearsal here, and she had been listening to the band’s CDs all along, struggling to memorize tunes. Then, she was off and running. “The first few gigs were daunting!”

Kennedy’s not completely sure why the band saw her as the right choice—”I must ask the lads”—but she suspects at least one of the answers lie in her deep interest in both the Irish and Scottish folk traditions, in combination with her love of American old-timey music. All that, she believes, blends in nicely with the Solas’s sound.

And it helps that she plays 5-string banjo, clawhammer style. Banjo is more than a passing interest for Seamus Egan, one of the world’s foremost tenor banjo players.

The Whileaways continue to figure prominently on Kennedy’s musical horizon. During Solas’s last one-month break, she returned to Ireland to record an EP with her friends. In April, during the next break, she will go back to Ireland to tour with the band, and release a single.

It’s a lot of music to jam into one life, but Noriana Kennedy has never known any other way. As a kid, she listened to everything—rock, reggae, folk, whatever rolled down the pike that engaged her interest. When she was older, she and her brother formed a band that toured five years before marriages and the demands of family put an end to it.

She continued to work as an environmental consultant, but then the recession hit.

“I decided to have a go at playing music in bars around Galway,” Kennedy says. “I’d teamed up with a brilliant Dutch musician who’d just moved to Galway, who sang and looked like Bob Dylan. We formed a group called Mad Uncle Harry, and we had a great following, and gigged four or five times a week.”

All of that gigging offered some useful schooling for a singer on the way up.

“It was a great three years, and great training for me. My voiced developed hugely after singing in bars and trying to be heard.”

If you’ve heard Noriana Kennedy sing, you know she learned her lesson well.

Solas will appear in concert Thursday, February 27, at 8 p.m. Visit for details.


Review: “Shamrock City”



About a year ago, fiddler Winifred Horan and accordion player Mick McAuley—bandmates in the Philadelphia-based Irish supergroup Solas—played an intimate house party in Ambler. About midway through the performance McAuley sang a new song he and Solas front man Seamus Egan had written about early 20th century Irish immigrant Michael Conway, who ventured to Butte, Montana, to join droves of other Irish emigres who found work in the lucrative local copper mines.

Within six years, Conway lay dead in the streets. Many Butte miners died young, but Conway’s death came at the hands of local lawmen, who beat him viciously as punishment for stubbornly refusing to throw a bare-knuckled boxing match.

Horan, visibly moved, wiped tears from her eyes as the song came to a close. Hers were not the only misty eyes in the room.

McAuley’s performance was a sneak preview of a then relatively new musical and visual Solas project called “Shamrock City.” Conway was the great uncle of Seamus Egan’s father, so Egan family lore inspired the project. Several of the tunes were available on an EP sold at concerts and in other venues, and the band previewed them in concert over the past year, including an appearance at World Cafe Live. The full-length CD has just been released, and no doubt you’ll hear much more about it—and much more music—when Solas returns to the World Cafe for two shows on the evening of Saturday, February 9. (Learn more here.)

“Shamrock City” is easily on a par with anything that has been written, played or sung about the hope and heartbreak at the nexus of most Irish diaspora tales. It might even be better in that it stands not as one song or two, but as a unified whole, a complete and compelling story.

Solas has more than a little help bringing “Shamrock City” to life. The cast of contributing musicians is like a who’s who of contemporary folk, roots and Celtic music, including Natalie Haas on cello; Lunasa bassist Trevor Hutchinson; Dirk Powell on five-string banjo; singer and fiddler Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops; Philadelphia dobro virtuoso Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner; Scottish singer Dick Gaughan; Aoife O’Donovan, lead singer of the bluegrass band Crooked Still; and the British-style Allegheny Brass Band.

Longtime Solas associates bassist Chico Huff and percussionist John Anthony (who also recorded and mixed the CD) also appear.

The album opens with “Far Amerikay,” another ballad written by McAuley, who shares writing credits with Seamus Egan on this and several other tunes. It’s about what you would expect—a tale of leaving—but with some particularly lovely lyrics like this poignant mother’s lament: “God knows it’s not for glory, son, we just have to make some room. / My heart will surely break for you, sweet treasure of my womb.” Solas lead singer Niamh Varian Barry takes the lead on this one, with deep, droning backing chords by Natalie Haas. It’s a finely drawn piece of work, and it sets the stage for the story that follows.

There’s no escaping the sadness of life far from home, and that sadness gets an airing again later in the CD, with Varian-Barry’s heartfelt rendering of the traditional “Am I Born to Die.” But it’s not all gloom and doom—far from it.

Take, for example, Seamus Egan’s whimsical instrumental “Girls On the Line.” You can probably guess what kind of girls they are. And Rhiannon Giddens takes a turn as a kind of taproom chanteuse in the old-timey “Lay Your Money Down,” another McAuley-Egan collaboration. (“Drinks are on the house now, sonny, the sweetest deal in town / You can’t take it with you, honey, so lay your money down.”)

Some lively clogging dancing starts out “High, Wide and Handsome,” with Winnie Horan taking the lead. You can practically feel her fiddle bow disintegrating. Horan also takes the spotlight in one of her own compositions, the wistful waltz, “Welcome the Unknown,” with Egan on low whistle.

Probably the one tune destined for “RPT” play on my CD player is the rebellious “Tell God and the Devil,” leading off with percussive banjo picking by Egan, lead vocals by Varian-Barry, with tight backup vocals by McAuley and the talented longtime Solas guitarist and keyboard player Eamon McElholm, who consistently provides some of the best harmony in the business. Little more than indentured servants they might be, the song seems to say, but these miners are tough, resilient SOBs.

The final tune, “No Forgotten Man,” strikes a note of hard-won triumph against incredible odds, and leaves the listener with a feeling of hope. It’s a fitting and satisfying end.

This album stands out because there’s no slushy sentimentality on display anywhere; just a gritty but life-affirming authenticity. The homesickness, the harrowing risks, the cheapness of human life, the irresistible need to find pleasure in a pint of beer or in the arms of a goodtime girl—all the shared experiences of Irish immigrants in the town that became known as “the richest hill on earth”—all are encapsulated completely into the story of one bold young man from Cork, and the town that became his home, if for only a little while.

Like Michael Conway himself, with “Shamrock City,” Solas pulls no punches.


Solas in Concert at Longwood Gardens

Seamus Egan last played in the Open Air Theatre at Longwood Gardens about 20 years ago when he accompanied Mick Moloney and Eugene O’Donnell. Let’s hope it won’t be another 20 years before he plays there again.

Egan and his Solas bandmates closed out the summer with a memorable performance in one of the Delaware Valley’s prettiest places. At Longwood, the theatre itself is part of the show. Lush, tall arborvitae flank the stage. Flagstone walls and and lacy wrought iron gates form the backdrop. The place holds 1,500, but it seems more intimate than that. No roof … just cool breezes, dark skies, chirping crickets, bright stars and, on this night, a creamy gibbous moon.

All that atmosphere, and a big, splashy fountain show worthy of Esther Williams at the finale … fans will be talking about this one for a long time.

Egan on flute, joined by Eamon McElholm on guitar, took the stage first and set the tone with a sublime version of the slow air “An Buachaill Caol Dubh (The Dark Slender Boy).” The mellow mood didn’t last long, though. A slimmed-down Mick McAuley on button accordion (I heard someone near me ask “Who is that guy?”) and fiddler Winifred Horan joined Egan and McElholm, and launched into the band’s trademark “Wiggly Jigs” set. They moved on from there to a smoking set of reels. Joining them onstage for the reels was another skinny guy, Lord of the Dance star Jonathan Srour, who popped out of the hedges at stage right and had the audience clapping right from the start. He made two more appearances later on in the night.

Another surprise—a different singer, Niamh-Varian de Barra from Cork, practically just off the plane and making her first appearance with the band. Regular lead singer Mairead Phelan was off that night.

de Barra seemed a bit tentative on her first tune, “The Gallant Hussar.” By the time she made her second appearance, singing “The Ditching Boy,” she seemed to have shed any first-night jitters she might have had. She sang “Seven Curses” with the same confidence and energy.

McAuley and McElholm sang harmony in support of de Barra’s efforts, but it was hard to hear them. Sound quality was a bit out of whack throughout the night. de Barra sounded just fine; McAuley and McElholm were underamplified. Horan’s fiddle came through loud and clear; Egan’s guitar at times was barely audible. On balance, though, everything else about the concert was just so blissful—Horan’s tender rendering of “My Dream of You,” McAuley’s performance of the John Martyn tune, “Spencer the Rover,” and “Vital Metal Medicine,” Egan’s knuckle-busting banjo piece—it’s impossible to get tied up in knots over such a minor point.

It’s easy to forget tiny imperfections, too, when your favorite Irish band appears to be caught up in the middle a massive MGM water ballet. A bit campy? You bet. But the band seemed to be enjoying it, and who were the rest of us not to join in the fun?

[amazon_link id=”B0031Y4AJE” target=”_blank” ]Purchase “The Turning Tide”[/amazon_link]


Solas: The Perfect End to St. Patrick’s Day

Solas on stage at World Cafe Live, banging out reels, jigs and songs: If there’s a better way, a better band and a better place to close out St. Patrick’s Day, I haven’t heard of it.

Starting with a foot-stomping set of reels and ending (an encore, of course) with the wildly rhythmic “Coconut Dog,” the Irish-American band headed by native Philadelphian and multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan kept the joint jumping all night long.

If you weren’t there—and I probably shouldn’t tell you this because you’ll be heartbroken—Solas was joined onstage by Mike Brenner on dobro (he appears on the band’s most recent release, “The Turning Tide”) and by longtime collaborators Ben Wittman on drums and Chico Huff on bass. Normally, Huff is the only non-band member to accompany the band in local performances. This was a much fuller sound, more like what you hear on recordings. Quite the treat.

Highlights of the evening:

•Winifred Horan’s lovely performance of her tune, “My Dream of You;”
•Singer Mairead Phelan’s sensitive rendering of the Josh Ritter song, “Girl in the War,” with accompaniment by Brenner and harmonies by guitarist and keyboard player Eamon McElholm;
•The band’s killer performance of “Hugo’s Big Reel,” the opening track from the new album;
•A weird and wonderful little story from Winifred Horan about the hilarity that ensues when a fan confuses “fairy forts” with “fairy farts.” And probably enough said on that score.
Oh yes, one other highlight, maybe the best of the night: a sweet a capella performance by Phelan of the old standby, “A Parting Glass.” We were in pin-drop territory on that one. Even the servers stopped buzzing about.

Truly, “goodnight and joy be with you all.”

We’ve a couple of videos from that performance.


From Starstruck Fan to Rising Star

Mairead Phelan

Mairead Phelan ... her Facebook profile picture.

You know you’ve really made your mark on a band when they name a song after you. On “The Turning Tide,” the most recent offering from the Irish-American supergroup Solas, the sixth track composed by fiddler Winnie Horan is entitled “A Waltz for Máiréad,” after Máiréad Phelan, the young singer from Kilkenny who stepped into the breach after the departure of Deirdre Scanlan in 2008. (Rumor has it that Horan also considered naming it the Caprese Waltz because she likes the salad, but never mind.)

“It’s so sweet to have a tune named after you,” Phelan says. “Winnie is just lovely, she feels like a sister to me.” However, she’s quick to add that the band, both on tour and in the studio, is not about divisions. “It doesn’t really feel like the boys and the girls at all. We don’t really feel outnumbered—we actually get treated like princesses!”

Unlike Scanlan, who mentions in the band’s Reunion DVD that she hadn’t initially been familiar with Solas, Phelan was a fan of their work long before she joined the band. Upon meeting the other members, “I was completely starstruck,” she admits. It’s easy to assume that coming into such a talented and well-known bunch of musicians (fine, you try to describe Solas without use of the word “supergroup,” I dare you) would be intimidating, but Phelan, surprisingly, says no.

“I had met them before at the audition, so I knew they were lovely because they made me so comfortable there in that situation, which could potentially be weird. I was just so excited and curious to see how a band I loved so much went about making music. I was definitely nervous,” she adds, “but that went away as soon as we got to actually rehearsing. It’s really a lovely way to spend your day.”

Although Phelan is remarkably candid and down-to-earth when she talks about her role in the band, you get the sense that despite the hard work and relentless touring schedule, the magic still hasn’t quite worn off for her. When you hear how she came into the band in the first place, you begin to understand why. Like Phelan, box player Mick McAuley also hails from Kilkenny. The two met while she was singing at a session there in the summer of 2007, and when Deirdre Scanlan left the band about a year later, they got in touch again.

“He asked me to send a demo CD,” she recalls, “and I didn’t have one! I had a friend who’s a guitarist, and we recorded ourselves on a mini-disc player in the bathroom, because it had an echo.” For those who are curious, the tracklist on the Máiréad Phelan Bathroom Demo included the following: Richard Thompson’s “The Dimming of the Day,” two or three traditional songs, a song from the band HEM, and one from Canadian chanteuse Feist. Here’s an odd coincidence: after recently losing her own iPod, Phelan borrowed McAuley’s only to find her own demo on it, which she hadn’t heard since it was recorded.

Like the other members of Solas, Phelan brings a wide range of musical experiences to the table. Music holds an important place in many Irish families, and hers was no exception.

“My dad plays the banjo,” she says, “And my sister’s an amazing cellist. When I was four or five, like most kids in Ireland, I was given a tin whistle. I started the flute when I was ten.” She won the All-Irelands in both flute and tin whistle when she was eleven. She also spent some years studying classical piano at the Royal Musical Academy in Dublin, but ultimately decided that that particular musical path was not for her.

“I toyed with the idea of being a classical piano player… but it was all a bit serious!” she laughs. “I also thought it was ridiculous to spend so much time talking about music instead of playing it.” Although she never received formal training as a singer, Phelan began singing when she was very young, and it was something that remained constant with her throughout her musical explorations.

“Every instrument has its perks,” she says. “Like with the piano there’s so much to work with, so many colors you can produce. But singing is very close to my heart. When I hear singers, it moves me in ways that… there’s something about singing, maybe, because it’s just purely from that person, with no medium, not a trumpet or whatever to convey what they’re feeling. Just their voice.”

From her performances on the selection of traditional and contemporary songs on “The Turning Tide,” it’s clear that Phelan has an intimate understanding of how to convey emotion with her particular vocal instrument. This is especially apparent on her haunting rendition of “Girl in the War,” a tune penned by American songwriter Josh Ritter. When the band gets together to choose songs for an album, she says, “Basically, it’s a democracy. Everybody puts in songs if they have one in mind. In this album, for example, I suggested ‘Girl in the War;’ I think Seamus (Egan, the band’s leader) suggested ‘Ghost of Tom Joad.’”

This anecdote reveals another interesting characteristic of Phelan, which is perhaps part of what makes her so versatile as a singer: her musical influences range far and wide, from female-fronted indie acts like Bat for Lashes and Florence & the Machine, to classic songwriters like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. And of course, there’s plenty of Irish trad in there—Lunasa, At First Light, and Dervish are a few of her favorites.

What’s in Phelan’s future? Well, in the immediate future, loads of tour dates—including a show at World Café Live in Philadelphia on St. Patrick’s Day, which she’s looking forward to very much. Beyond that? “Well obviously, this is amazing, so I’ll stick it as long as I can. I just feel like the luckiest girl in the world.”


Review: “The Turning Tide” by Solas

Solas keeps reinventing itself and yet somehow manages the trick of always staying the same: reliably, predictably brilliant.

This kind of success is all the more remarkable considering the number of personnel changes since the band burst upon the scene in 1994. Only multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and fiddler Winifred Horan are original members of the band. Over the years, though, the rest of the lineup has changed: three guitarists, two button accordion players and three singers. That’s not to suggest tumult is the inevitable result. On the contrary, every new musician has brought fresh perspectives to the party, and so the band and its sound have evolved. You can hear subtle changes in each of the nine albums Solas released between 1996 and 2008.

Now, along comes album No. 10, “The Turning Tide,” the second featuring singer Mairead Phelan. All of the essential elements you’ve come to expect from Solas are there. Start with mind-blowing, high-energy arrangements from Seamus Egan (“Hugo’s Big Reel”) and guitarist Éamon McElholm (“The Crows of Killimer”/Box Reel #2″/”Boys of Malin”/”The Opera House”). When the band performs at the World Cafe this St. Patrick’s Day, you can predict that those will inspire enthusiastic “whoops.” The band has been cranking out bread and butter numbers like that from day one. Add in a clever confection from Winifred Horan—”A Waltz for Mairead,” which reminds me a bit of “The Highlands of Holland” from the 2003 album, “Another Day.” Now tack on the happily tangled rhythms of box player Mick McCauley’s “Trip to Kareol” (which reminds me vaguely of “Who’s in the What Now” from “Edge of Silence”).

It could all seem formulaic, but if it is, it’s a formula for sure-fire success. At its core, regardless of who is playing the guitar or accordion—and Solas attracts the best—the band remains consistently excellent. And even if some of the selections seem familiar, Solas infuses fresh new energy and excitement into them.

Into this dependable mix steps Mairead Phelan, who joined Solas in 2008, replacing Deirdre Scanlan (who replaced Karan Casey). Phelan made her debut on the last CD, “For Love and Laughter.” Her first outing provided a tantalyzing clue as to what was to come. On “The Turning Tide,” she really comes into her own, and adds her own special imprint on the band.

It helps that she has great material to work with. I’d love to know the process Solas follows for picking tunes. On “The Turning Tide,” as always, the band has discriminating taste—for example, “A Sailor’s Life,” the old English folk song popularized by Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention; Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad”; and “Girl in the War” by Josh Ritter, whose writing invites comparisons to Springsteen and to the young Dylan.

But great tune selection can only take you so far. The singer has to be up to the task.

Mairead Phelan is there.

I was prepared to like “Ghost of Tom Joad”—it’s a great song to begin with—but Solas adds its own intriguing interpretation. Seamus Egan opens on banjo, and what follows is an arrangement that sounds more like a slow march than a folk tune. Phelan’s soft, sweet voice lends a plaintive quality to the Springsteen lyrics. The Boss would be pleased.

“A Girl in the War” was an interesting choice. Posters on the lyrics boards seem hopelessly divided on the song’s meaning. Does it have religious overtones, or is it an explicit anti-war tune? I’ll side with the latter. Check out to the lyrics and draw your own conclusions: “Peter said to Paul/You know all those words that we wrote/Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go/But now talkin’ to God is Laurel beggin’ Hardy for a gun/I got a girl in the war, man I wonder what it is we done.”

Phelan’s reading of the song is spot on. She draws you in and makes you feel every note of this gorgeous, haunting song. And, again, it helps that she has a superb band behind her—on this tune, including the Philly dobro player Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner—and the advantage of a lovely, restrained arrangement to match her delivery.

So what’s new about this version of Solas is clear in the form of a talented singer whose talents are really still just emerging.

Along with Brenner, “The Turning Tide” features contributions by long-time members of the Solas extended family—drummer Ben Wittman (he blows the doors off in “Hugo’s Big Reel”) and bassman Chico Huff, with percussion by John Anthony, who also recorded, mixed and mastered the CD.

Take a listen to “The Turning Tide.” (You’ll hear tracks on Marianne MacDonald’s radio show “Come West Along the Road” on WTMR AM 800 Sunday at noon.) I promise you’ll hear something new. And yet the same.


Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day With Solas

Two noteworthy changes to Solas as they appeared at World Café Live on St. Patrick’s Day.

First, vocalist Máiréad Phelan seems now more comfortably and confidently integrated into the band. Máiréad replaced Deirdre Scanlon last year. We first saw Máiréad at World Café not long after the release of the band’s latest, “For Love and Laughter.” She sang well, but her time on stage was limited to her vocal performance and she seemed, to me, a bit shy.

In her St. Pat’s performance, she seemed much more confident, and she spent more time on stage. When she wasn’t singing, she added piano accompaniment. Overall, a more complete performance. It’s easy to underestimate her vocal power, but it really came through in this show.

The second noteworthy change: box player Mick McAuley has lost his signature ponytail.

Other than that, it was just another Solas performance—an amazing display of musical virtuosity. If Solas ever has an “off” performance, I haven’t heard it. Whether roaring through a blast of reels or delivering a soulful rendition of the traditional “Mollai Na GCuach Ni Chuilleanain (Curly Haired Molly),” Solas—even with all the changes to the lineup over a decade—is still one of the most creative and dynamic Irish bands going.

In their most recent home town performance, Solas performed many tunes off the most recent CD, including Ricky Lee Jones’s “Sailor Song” and “Seven Curses” (with tight harmonies by McAuley and guitarist Eamon McElholm on the latter). McAuley also paid tribute to the late songwriter John Martyn with his moving rendition of “Spencer the Rover.”

Noting that “the banjo is an occasionally maligned instrument,” leader Seamus Egan went on to set things right with a blistering performance of “Vital Mental Medicine.” And the bow-shredding fiddler Winifred Horan, when she wasn’t setting new land speed records on assorted jigs and reels, offered more laid-back displays of her talent such as her lovely and sad “My Dream of You.” (“We’re not actually that depressed,” she insisted.)

Nor were we.


Review: “For Love and Laughter”

Solas, in a Chestnut Hill concert in Pastorius Park.

Solas, in a Chestnut Hill concert in Pastorius Park.

Previews of the new Solas CD, “For Love and Laughter,” have been up on the band’s Web site for many weeks. The clips are short, but tantalizing. There’s just enough there to make it clear that Solas—with the band’s new singer Máiréad Phelan—is evolving.

The clips are just a half a minute long—the merest tease. So you were left to wonder just how much Solas might change following the departure of singer Deirdre Scanlan.

Whatever were you fretting about? 
Solas is still Solas—the band’s trademark sound fully intact—and all’s right with the world. With the new singer and some intriguing collaborations, including cellist Natalie Haas, world music artists The Duhks and the Appalachian multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell—they might even be better. And of course, no Solas performance would be complete without longtime bassist Chico Huff.

The opening set—“Eoin Bear’s Reel,” “Tune for Sharon” and “The Rossa Reel”—could settle comfortably into any Solas CD to date. With leader and all-Ireland multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan setting the pace, the rest of this gifted band—the fiddler Winifred Horan, button accordionist Mick McAuley and guitarist Éamon McElholm—merrily bend tradition to their will. The first sound you hear is a sly little smile of a note from Horan’s fiddle. The two tunes that follow are tightly controlled—but just barely—with Horan’s fiddle and McCauley’s accordion playfully crossing paths, occasionally overlapping, then spinning off in opposite directions. This is Irish music as Jezzball. Egan and McElholm close out the set with a strong, percussive “Rossa Reel.”

(In fact, the whole album is percussive. Perhaps because it was recorded and mixed by Solas associate and drummer John Anthony, who plays on several tracks, “For Love and Laughter” seems like the most percussive Solas recording since 1997’s “Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers.”)

A later set—the improbably named “Vital Mental Medicine” paired with “The Pullet”—cinches the deal. The first is a scary Rubik’s Cube of rhythms and counter-rhythms, Egan leading the way on banjo. The whole “Mental Medicine” gives way to a furious interpretation of “The Pullet.” If you’ve ever seen Horan play, you know that she does cruel things to bowstrings. It’s a pretty good bet she shredded a few on this number.

That’s the Solas we know. But what about the new singer?

Máiréad Phelan gets a chance to earn her pay early on. She is front and center on the second track, “Seven Curses,” and she more than holds her own.

It’s clear from the start that Phelan does represent something of a departure. Her voice is softer and breathier than Scanlan’s. And she’s not a belter like the diminutive Karan Casey, Solas’s first vocalist. Think Heidi Talbot or Pauline Scanlon. That’s closer to the mark.

Phelan’s voice stands out on its own, but she is often supported by harmonies from McAuley and McElholm.

The material is generally very well matched to her talents, perhaps especially the haunting traditional long song, “Molly na gCuach Ni Chuillean.” It sounds like a tune she was born to sing. Once again, McAuley and McElholm join in on harmonies. Natalie Haas also makes her first of three appearances. (A later pairing with Horan on the instrumental “My Dream of You” is dreamlike and nothing short of inspired.)

Probably the best overall vocal performance features Phelan with accompaniment by The Duhks on the bluegrass-flavored “Merry Go Round,” written by frequent Solas contributor Antje Duvekot. If there is one number destined to become the perennial crowd-pleaser, this one probably is it.

McAuley’s vocal talents also are showcased on the tune’s title track, with superb harmonies from McElholm and Phelan. During the brief period in which the band was without a lead singer, McAuley and McElholm (who also plays piano and Hammond organ on some tracks) stepped into the breach. It’d be nice to hear more from them.

At the heart of it all, of course, is Seamus Egan, who plays no fewer than nine instruments on this album—crushingly depressing to those of us who play only one, and not as well. Certainly not to discount the contributions of others—notably, the wonderful Winifred Horan—Egan pretty clearly remains the soul of Solas.  So long as that is the case, the band can weather personnel changes, as it has many times in its 13 years.

You can see and hear the proof for yourself September 21 at 7:30 at World Café Live.

You’ll also be able to hear the whole album—and not just our few clips—when “Love and Laughter” goes on sale August 26.