SOLAS – Shamrock City (THL001)

Shamrock CitySolas’ Shamrock City, originally out in 2013 has just been re-released. Solas are currently paused indefinitely while founder Seamus Egan develops The Seamus Egan Project, but there is an unexpected relevance to reviewing this re-release given the current political climate. The album is a “family story of immigration, mining and murder…the remarkable history of Michael Conway and Butte, Montana”. Michael Conway was the great-great uncle of Seamus Egan and Butte, Montana, was ‘the richest hill on earth’ – to which Conway came, from Ireland, in 1910.

In 1916, the local paper reported on his inquest, “Concussion of the brain and infection of the nasal organs, resulting from a beating received while resisting efforts of Patrolmen Brady and Carison to quell…a riot last Friday night caused the death of Michael Conway at a local hospital Sunday morning.” Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, perhaps? Shamrock City, then, is an album which you can’t help but listen to in 2020 in a way that wouldn’t have happened on its first release.

Solas have been described as the “pre-eminent Irish-American band of their generation for the past 20 years, continuously renewing Irish music with fresh ideas” and Shamrock City was voted one of the Top 10 folk releases by Mojo magazine. It dates from the period when Niamh Varian-Barry was lead singer. In addition to the core band, the guest musicians include Rhiannon Giddens and Dick Gaughan.

If you missed it first time round, the album retains its magic. To pick a handful of gems from among the tracks – ‘Far Americay’ is told from the viewpoint of those who didn’t migrate and the sense of loss for the family left behind as they read letters from the mine. ‘Tell God and the Devil’ that “they can try/ but today’s not gonna be the day we die” captures the toughness of the men in the mine – not just with the lyric but with a tune that dares you to stop its energy. The instrumental ‘Girls On The Line’ starts slowly and turns into a belter.

Butte, Montana was renowned for having all the vices available if you wanted to pay for them (and I imagine a fair few that were free as well); ‘Lay Your Money Down’ is equally lively in capturing that “It’s just that kind of town”. As the sleeve notes say, “they were mining for copper, yet perseverance and dignity were perhaps the precious commodities ever to come from the Richest Hill on Earth”. Finally, then, the ferocity of Gaughan’s vocal on the humanitarian and Union-/Communal- driven ‘Labour Song’ demanding a dignity of life is just straightforward powerful – full stop.

Solas were originally “a band of friends who gathered to enjoy the late-night craic of the Irish sessions in Philadelphia and New York, Solas was able to meld the breakneck speed and fun of these late-night jams with a more sensitive feel for complex arrangements and composition that came from Egan’s love of other music genres”. Shamrock City was the eleventh Solas album; it’s as relevant today with its themes of living, humanity and death as it was in 2013 – or would have been in 1916 when Michael Conway died in the copper boomtown of Butte, Montana.

Mike Wistow

Artists’ website::  (actually Seamus Eagan solo)

Solas’ Shamrock City live at Celtic Connections: