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SOLAS - Shamrock City

SOLAS - Shamrock City
THL Records THL001

In a departure from this influential Irish-American band’s previous recordings, Shamrock City takes the form of a concept album of sorts, in effect telling the story of Solas front-man Séamus Egan’s great-great-great uncle, Michael Conway, who left his home in Co. Mayo in 1910 at the age of 19, boarding a ship for America. His destination was the copper mines and boxing rings of Butte, Montana, also known as Shamrock City due to its influx of Irish immigrants; however, his fate was to die in mysterious circumstances just six years later at the hands of local police.

Michael’s story is told from his own viewpoint in a compelling sequence that presents original songs by band members (mostly Séamus with Mick McAuley) with the occasional non-intrusive interpolation of soundbites providing brief snatches of necessary atmosphere. The themes of “the huddled masses yearning to breathe”, their spirit, tenacity and humour in the face of innumerable hardships, discrimination and corruption – these draw parallels between Michael’s personal experiences and those of thousands more immigrants, as well as parallels with contemporary struggles and situations (plus ça change), much as you’d expect, but Séamus and his collaborators tell their story well and their musical and vocal contributions are impeccably judged with imaginative and genuinely interesting musical arrangements that refuse to overstate their point and remain content to embellish the storytelling in authentic fashion.

Each of the individual songs presents as a snapshot, a photograph from Michael’s album, from the hopeful God-speed emigration ballad Far Americay to a rough-and-tumble tableau of Michael’s miner colleagues (Tell God And The Devil), and a thoughtful eponymous self-portrait, on to a series of cameo songs chronicling aspects of life in the new land. Three of these feature tailor-made lead-vocal roles for special guests – Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) brings us a feisty good-time on Lay Your Money Down, Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still) delicately caresses the ambience of Arbor Day, and Dick Gaughan delivers mighty conviction to Mick’s bold-and-true anthem Labour Song (which also features the stirring tones of the Allegheny Brass Band).

The instrumental items are nicely done too, from the anticipatory sweeping waltzing of Welcome The Unknown (penned by fiddler Winifred Horan) to the quirkily tipsy melodic contours of Séamus’ reel Girls On The Line. But a standout performance within the sequence comes with Niamh Varian-Barry’s superb account of the album’s one traditional song, Am I Born To Die?, which is followed by Mick’s powerful closer No Forgotten Man. In all, the musicianship and vision of Séamus and his Solas colleagues is to be commended, and the band is selectively augmented by contributions from the likes of Dirk Powell, Trevor Hutchinson, Natalie Haas and Mike Brenner.

The music sounds great, and the songs, tunes and flow of the project all convince. And yet, while it all forms a sufficiently pleasing narrative that’s a worthy addition to the tradition of story-albums, Shamrock City arguably doesn’t quite score all possible points, since it doesn’t get the time within the span of a single disc to stretch itself far enough or deep enough and thus remains slightly elusive in terms of illuminating its central character.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 96 of The Living Tradition magazine.