- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

What do you think of when you hear the words Celtic music? The flashing feet of "Riverdance"? Irish pub music like the Clancy Brothers or the traditional jigs and reels of the Chieftains? Or are you lucky enough to know the wonderful energy of Cape Breton's Natalie MacMaster or the boisterous fun of Gaelic Storm from Santa Monica, Calif.?
How about mariachi trumpets, electric guitars and drum loops? Celtic music starts in many places and is moving in many directions. This week our area will be hosting two exciting young bands, which are stretching the definition of Celtic music. It would be very hard to put the label "traditional" on either one of these bands today, but both started out playing acoustic instruments and singing songs that were written hundreds of years ago.
For guitarist Alan Doyle, Great Big Sea from St. John's, Newfoundland, that's only part of the family tradition.
"When I was growing up, it was normal to sit in kitchen parties with my folks," says Mr. Doyle, "singing Buddy Holly songs intermingled with 400-year-old Newfoundland traditional songs, and then a song that my uncle wrote, and then back to an Elvis."
The band brings its "aggressive folk" music to the 9:30 Club on Saturday. On the latest Great Big Sea album, "Sea of No Cares," the band has followed the tradition and included six band originals and five traditional Newfoundland folk songs with Celtic roots. There is a great mix of styles, and it's often difficult to tell which is original and which is traditional. The 100-year-old traditional "Yarmouth Town" is given a folk-rock punch, while the band's own "French Perfume" has the feel of a maritime classic.
The band also took some new chances and experimented with nontraditional sounds.
"This is kind of our broadest palette that we've ever had," says Mr. Doyle. "We were kind of unafraid on this record to try to let the songs live in worlds that they wanted to live in, and to really use the studio to our advantage. If we felt like, 'Wow, wouldn't that song be cool if it had kind of like a mariachi band trumpet in it?' it was, 'Let's get them, let's do it.'"
Even the band's most contemporary-sounding originals, laced with electric guitars and drum loops, still show its folk roots through the hum of the accordion or the drone of the fiddle and the tight Celtic harmonies. It's just Great Big Sea sharing its traditions.
"We don't want people to discover the cultures and the traditions of Newfoundland because they feel they should," says Mr. Doyle. "We want them to do it because they're great songs. Or we want them to do it because they like it just as much as they like a REM song or they like a whatever."

While Great Big Sea is trying to draw people into the Newfoundland tradition with its contemporary sound, the American and Irish members of Solas are trying to make their audience stretch their minds and their perceptions of Celtic music. Solas, which the Boston Herald once called "the greatest traditional Irish band in the world," comes to the Barns at Wolf Trap Wednesday and Thursday.
"When I go to a concert, the last thing I want to do is sit and be yelled at," says Solas fiddler Winifred Horan. "I want to leave a concert thinking, 'Wow, that was powerful, but I don't quite know why and I need to really think about this.' "
With this in mind, Solas has challenged its traditional reputation and created a new album, titled "The Edge of Silence." It incorporates striking original instrumentals, unique contemporary arrangements and powerful topical songwriting from the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and newcomer Antje Duvekot.
"There's no traditional song on the record," says Solas leader Seamus Egan. "That for us was a big step. The idea was to kind of bring our approach to a traditional song and the way we would have arranged it in the past and keep that as a guiding principle. And see if that works in nontraditional material."
The sound of the album is clear from the first song, Jessie Colin Young's "Darkness, Darkness." Multiple contemporary Celtic fiddles mingle with rock-style bass and drums and the rumble and crackle of electronic samples and sound effect loops. All of this is overlaid by the soaring vocals of Deirdre Scanlan's traditional Celtic soprano.
There is an energy and excitement, even on the quietest songs on this album, that should transfer well to Solas' live performance. Miss Horan is looking forward to the group's chance to play the new material.
"We've always been fortunate enough to play with people who are excited by stepping outside of being comfortable. It's a buzz to actually challenge yourself and step outside of what you do."

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