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Blending a sincere love and respect for the traditions of Irish music with a sense of melodic and instrumental adventure that suggests a clear focus on the future, Solas have established themselves as one of the finest Celtic folk groups working in the United States, with more than one writer describing them as perhaps the finest Irish traditional band extant.
Solas is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan. Born in Pennsylvania in 1969, Egan moved to Ireland with his family when he was three years of age, and a few years later he began taking lessons on the tin whistle. At age 14, Egan returned to the United States, and already displayed a precocious talent on the whistle, flute, banjo, mandolin, and guitar. At 16, Egan cut his first album, Traditional Music of Ireland, and before he turned 20 he was already a seasoned professional musician, having toured with the likes of Peter, Paul & Mary and Ralph Stanley, and doing session work with Vernon Reid.
Solas began to take shape when Egan joined forces with fiddler Winifred Horan (an All-Ireland champion on her instrument and a prize-winning Irish stepdancer to boot) and gifted guitarist John Doyle. The trio began playing Irish bars in New York City, and soon joined forces with two other kindred spirits, accordionist John Williams and vocalist Karan Casey. Naming themselves Solas — Celtic for light — the group played their first show in Washington, D.C., in 1995, and in less than a year were offered a recording contract by Shanachie, the label that released Egan's first solo set. The group's self-titled debut was released in 1996, and the band soon found themselves a major draw at folk clubs after scoring appearances on the popular public radio shows A Prairie Home Companion and Mountain Stage. In 1997, the group's second album was released, Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers, which won rave reviews in the music press, as did the 1998 follow-up, The Words That Remain.
The band's hard work was paying off as Solas had become one of the most popular Celtic folk groups in America, but by the time the band released The Hour Before Dawn in 1999, Solas was going through a transitional phase. Egan had been experimenting with more pop-oriented material (he had earlier co-written the song "I Will Remember You" for the soundtrack to the film The Brothers McMullen, which later became a hit single for Sarah McLachlan), and the group's fourth album found them moving away from traditional sounds toward a sound more strongly influenced by pop and new age melodies. The group also began going through some personnel shifts; after releasing her first solo album in 1997, Karan Casey opted to leave the group in 1998, and prize-winning Irish singer Deirdre Scanlan took over as vocalist in time to record The Hour Before Dawn. John Williams also left the group by the time the fourth album was recorded, with Mick McAuley (who, ironically, had played with Casey's solo band) taking over on button accordion and concertina.
The band's evolution continued with the group's fifth album, 2002's The Edge of Silence, which built on the refinements Solas introduced with The Hour Before Dawn. The album found the group covering songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, and Tom Waits, and the disc was co-produced by Neil Dorfsman, best-known for his work with Dire Straits. The album found Solas making more personnel changes as well; Donal Clancy (the son of Irish folk legend Liam Clancy) stepped in as guitarist after the departure of John Doyle, and bassist Chico Huff and percussionist Steve Holloway, who had been touring with the group, joined them in the studio as well. When not busy with the group, Egan pursues a solo career and composed the score for the musical Dancing on Dangerous Ground. In addition, Winifred Horan also performs with the Celtic supergroup Cherish the Ladies, and has released a solo album of her own.