Fans get more with these live sets

By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


August 15, 2006

It's a pretty good time to be a music fan. Quality independent bands are finding homes at sympathetic indie labels, and legal downloading is exploding. Labels big and small are fighting shrinking CD sales by adding value to their jewel boxes and DVD cases.

Two very different bands on artist-friendly labels have gone the value-added route, and their fans should be thrilled. Reckless Kelly, a road-hardened, Austin, Texas-based roots-rock band, and Solas, a dizzyingly talented Irish-American band from Philadelphia, are in the stores with combo CD and DVD packages recorded live that take advantage of surround-sound technology.

Reckless Kelly
'Reckless Kelly Was Here'
Sugar Hill Records
Grade: A

The Braun brothers -- Willy (guitars, lead vocals) and Cody (fiddle, mandolin) -- came out of Oregon at the end of the grunge era, already full of experience playing in their father's band. They relocated to Austin in 1996 and, as Reckless Kelly, produced five albums before this exceptional double-CD and single DVD set, which was recorded before a raucous and adoring hometown crowd in March at the club La Zona Rosa.

"Reckless Kelly Was Here" captures every ounce of stage energy and deserves to be listed with the great, live rock-era albums, alongside the Who's "Live at Leeds," Janis Joplin's "Cheap Thrills" or even Warren Zevon's rare, never-been-on-CD "Stand in the Fire." It's that good.

The band, which includes guitarist David Abeyta, bassist Jimmy McFeeley and drummer Jay Nazz, jump genres with ease, performing covers and originals alike with confident swagger.

Two rockers, Willy Braun's "Sixgun" and Alejandro Escovedo's great "Castanets," kick off the show before RK deftly changes gears to the band-written country of "Motel Cowboy Show."

Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" follows, the tune continuing its pilgrimage from Thompson's Brit-folk original through Del McCoury's mountain bluegrass to RK's fiddle-fueled stomp. A Celtic reel, "Seven Nights in Eire," gives way to the hard-country ballad "Break My Heart Tonight" -- and these are just among the first several tunes.

RK makes more stops at country and rock, adds some Tex-Mex and delivers a thoroughly convincing, nine-minute cover of the Beatles' "Revolution."

The DVD, recorded in six-channel surround sound and including a bonus tour feature, documents the entire concert without a break but oddly omits the "Revolution" encore.

It's a terrific package that's as good to watch as it is to hear, equally involving on a couch or on the road. This band was meant to play live.

'Reunion: A Decade of Solas'
Compass Records
Grade: A

Solas means "light" in Gaelic, and it ought to mean "joy" and "wow" as well.

The current lineup of this 10-year-old band -- multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, fiddler Winifred Horan, accordionist Mick McAuley, singer Deirdre Scanlan and guitarist Eamon McElholm -- went into a Philadelphia studio with an audience just about a year ago for a romp through its catalog with friends and former members.

The result is the stunning "Reunion," which sounds great on CD but benefits on DVD from watching the players watch one another, compete with one another and revel in their mates' musicianship. The DVD contains some documentary touches, including backstage shots, interviews and voice-overs, but the concert numbers unspool without interruption.

Egan and Horan have been the constants, and it's revealing that while the evolving band has had players of quite different styles, all have contributed equally to Solas' sound. Original guitarist John Doyle, for example, a left-handed player, has a percussive, rhythmic style ("Newry Highwayman") compared with current guitarist McElholm, a more traditional but no-less-impressive musician ("On a Sea of Fleur de Lis" and several reels).

The singers, too, are stylistic opposites: Scanlan ("Black Annis," "Silver Dagger") is a sweet Irish soprano, while predecessor Karan Casey ("Wind That Shakes the Barley," "Pastures of Plenty") incorporates a bit of a pop sensibility.

The band plays in various combinations until all 14 current and former members and sidemen are onstage together, producing a glorious sound captured in all its muscular and subtle detail on the six-channel DVD mix.