The Lakewood Civic Auditorium was barely half full when The Irish Rovers took the stage late Sunday afternoon. But the legendary Celtic Canadian folk band delivered a hootenanny worthy of a capacity crowd on a Saturday night.
“They must’ve gotten lost,” quipped Ian Millar, scanning the empty seats in back.
Formed in Toronto in1963 by brothers George and Will Millar (originally of Belfast), The Irish Rovers first hit the charts with their catchy cover of Shel Silverstein’s “The Unicorn.” Singer Jimmy Ferguson and accordionist Wilcil McDowell joined the group and appeared on the Rovers’ popular television series in the Seventies. Cousin Joe Millar also signed on early and was still aboard for covers of Elmo and Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and Tom Paxton’s “Wasn’t That a Party”—a Top Ten hit in 1980.
Ferguson passed away in 1997 and other members have come and gone, but George Millar and Wilcil McDowell still anchor the lineup in concert and on record. They appeared Sunday with other long-time members Sean O’Driscoll, Fred Graham, and Ian Millar (who replaced father Joe in 2006). Auxiliary Rovers Morris Crum and Geoffrey Kelley filled in the sound on keys and whistle, respectively.
The red-headed (and bearded) George acted as jocular emcee for the hundred-minute set, regaling those in attendance with stories and anecdotes when not strumming his steel string Martin guitar. Cousin Ian—who with his white hair might’ve resembled St. Nick had he been wearing Santa’s red suit—played along on a Taylor acoustic guitar for some tunes and thumped a Fender Jazz Bass on others. Ian was The Rover’s joker of the day, cracking up the crowd with zingers about nuns who sneak liquor in teacups and kids who want their parents to “croak” like a frog so they can go to Disneyland. We’d love to elaborate—but why spoil a good laugh?
The seven-piece ensemble launched into their namesake song “The Irish Rover” and followed up quickly with “Rambling Boys of Pleasure” (from 2007’s Still Rovin’) and “Ireland Boys Hurrah” (from 2010’s Gracehill Fair). From there George and friends dipped further back into The Rovers’ catalog, dusting off “Will You Come Away and Marry Me?” “Marie’s Wedding,” and “Took Me By the Hand and Led Me On.”
Old hit “The Orange and the Green” spun the tale of an interreligious marriage between a Protestant father from Ulster (orange) and Catholic mother from Cork (green) in “the biggest mix-up you’ve ever seen.” Like many Rovers songs, the lyric was played for laughs; this goodtime group doesn’t like to spoil a good craic with politics or depressing stories about “the troubles.” This approach helped win them the Tommy Makem Award at The 2012 Irish Music Awards.
But that’s not to say George’s cadre of high-caliber musicians aren’t above a tender ode or heartbreaking ballad. “Dear Little Shamrock Shore” re-imagined the lives of thousands of young men whose emigration to America at the turn of the century meant they’d never again see the Emerald Isle. “Titanic” (from last year’s Drunken Sailor album) recalled the Belfast construction of the doomed White Star liner.
Kelly performed several lovely tin whistle solos to Ian’s left. Fred Graham manned a green drum kit on a rostrum behind the Millars—but the percussionist also thumped and shook a variety of other instruments, including bodhran. McDowell pumped his Vignoni accordion on a chair at stage right, with O’Driscoll plucking a banjo (or strumming mandolin) by his side. To their rear, Morris filled out the chords and melodies on a Yamaha Motif X57 synthesizer keyboard. That’s about as high-tech as these traditional players get.
The second half of the show consisted of bacchanalian tunes like “Whores and Hounds” and “Dublin Pub Crawl,” albeit with a couple standards (“Black Velvet Band,” “Girls of Derry”) thrown in for balance. Noah’s ark anthem “Unicorn” and rambunctious rally “Drunken Sailor” concluded the main set, but the fellows returned for the Elvis Presley-fused hangover hymn “Wasn’t That a Party.”
The Rovers retired to the lobby after the show to greet fans and autograph albums, DVDs, and any other merch offered on site or brought along by devotees.
It may well have been the last chance Ohioans get to see George’s crew, because the band plans to cease heavy touring by late 2014. Their current “Beginning of the Long Goodbye” tour will take them to New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania next—then it’s on to New Zealand. The Rovers may still play the occasional festival and record the odd album, but their 50th year of “roving” will definitely be the last.