Raise a pint to the Irish Rovers

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First Posted: 8/25/2014

Perhaps performing in Northeast Pennsylvania for the last time, The Irish Rovers brought its “Farewell to Rovin’” tour to the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday.

After 50 years, dozens of albums and thousands of concerts, the seven-man Irish group formed in Toronto, Canada, is calling it a day – slowly. The farewell tour will take two to three years to complete, and even then, there’s no telling if the group will be back or not. After all, bands have a long history of doing “one more farewell tour” – just ask The Who, who first bid adieu in 1982 and are still on the road.

Sunday’s show was a fitting reminder of why The Irish Rovers have lasted so long, as original members George Millar (guitar) and Wilcil McDowell (accordion) plus Ian Millar (bass), Sean O’Driscoll (banjo, mandolin), Fred Graham (drums), Geoffrey Kelly (flutes, whistles), Morris Crum (keyboards) and Gerry O’Connor (fiddle) entertained the small Kirby crowd for nearly two hours with its jaunty, happy tunes and a good dose of comedy as well.

“From the looks of it, there are only a few select people here tonight,” George Millar joked after the second song. “That’s OK, we still invite you to clap along and sing along. The only thing we ask though – if you are going to sing along, please sing the same song we are.”

The first set got underway with “The Irish Rover,” the traditional tune that lent its name to the group, and featured a few tunes from the group’s new 3-CD collection, “The Irish Rovers – 50 Years,” such as “Come Away With Me” with Ian Millar (George’s cousin and son of original member Joe Millar) on lead vocals.

The group got the crowd singing along on “She Took Me By The Hand” and scored with its version of “Patsy Fagan” and a song about a Dublin pub crawl listing just about every place that serves a pint of Guiness.

Never one to use its place on stage to become political, the most political The Rovers got on Sunday, as usual, was the humorous song “The Orange and the Green,” which tells the tale of an Irish lad with a Protestant father and a Catholic mother.

Ian Millar was a delightful contradiction throughout the evening, telling jokes and sharing humorous stories one moment and singing tender ballads like “Dear Little Shamrock Shore” the next.

“Did you get a nice drink of tea?” George Millar inquired after the intermission. “Now it’s time for ‘Whiskey in the Jar.’” The group then did a fantastic version of the traditional song made famous by The Dubliners in 1968 (and recorded by everyone from Thin Lizzy to the Grateful Dead to Metallica), the same year The Rovers took the world by storm.

The group followed with one of its own hits, 1969’s “Lily the Pink,” and then kept the party going with newer tune “Girls of Derry” and “Black Velvet Band,” first recorded by the group in 1968 for its album “The Unicorn.”

About the only negative about Sunday’s performance was maybe “the song that started it all for us,” as George Millar said to introduce 1968’s “The Unicorn,” was taken a bit too fast, almost as if the group just wanted to get done with it. Guess that could happen when you sing the same song night after night for 46 years, but it was still a treat nonetheless.

After a few instrumentals that showcased fiddler O’Connor and the accordion of McDowell, the group ended its second set with “Wasn’t That a Party,” a song written by Tom Paxton that was credited simply to “The Rovers” when the band reached the Top 40 for the last time in 1980.

The Irish Rovers then ended Sunday’s performance with “Drunken Sailor,” a surprise Internet sensation when it collected more than 10 million hits on YouTube in 2012. Group leader George Millar has often said, “If the audience leaves whistling ‘Drunken Sailor,’ then we’ve done our job.”

Mission accomplished, Mr. Millar.