No more a roving

Founding member George Millar says they still live and breathe the music.
Founding member George Millar says they still live and breathe the music.
The Irish Rovers have been roving for more than 50 years.
The Irish Rovers have been roving for more than 50 years.

From The Unicorn to Drunken Sailor, the Irish Rovers' set-list is long and varied, just like the group's half-century career, writes Shane Gilchrist.

The Irish Rovers might describe their latest sojourn as a ''farewell tour'', yet there is the possibility this call for last drinks might just result in another round.

''In this business I don't think you can ever say, `right, I'm putting away my guitar and never singing again','' founding member George Millar admits.

''Look at Cher. She's on her fourth farewell tour. We've got a fair ways to go yet. It's more about getting away from all the touring and instead playing in one place, such as Las Vegas, for a few weeks. It's not as easy as it was when we were 25.''

At 66, Millar speaks with an authority that has been hard-earned. As an Irish teenager who had recently arrived in Toronto, Canada, he formed the band in 1963.

That's more than 50 years of performing, recording and, of course, touring to various corners of the world, including New Zealand, where the band landed earlier this month for a series of performances that includes a concert at the Dunedin Town Hall on Friday, October 17, as part of Arts Festival Dunedin.

''Our first visit to New Zealand was in 1972. We've been coming every three or four years, but this could well be [the] last time,'' Millar says from his Whangarei hotel room.

''We are the dinosaurs of the Irish music scene. But that's OK. The Chieftains are a little bit older than us and have been touring a long time as well. The Clancy brothers are long gone, rest their souls; they started the Irish music movement back in the late 1950s.

"The Dubliners are gone, too.

''While audiences are still interested in us, we'll keep singing for a while. We have a couple more trips to do through North America in 2015-16 but after that we are going to get off the touring circuit.

''I started the band when I was 16 years old. This is almost our 51st year now so it might be time to pull it back a bit. Still, we don't have to look like Mick Jagger and wear Spandex; we're lucky in that respect.''

It likely helps that traditional Irish or Celtic music - in fact, folk music in general - is a musical cloak that fits performers of varying ages.

And though some songs in the Rovers' set-list go back centuries, the tunes (if not the performers) are also young and restless.

''That is the magic of Celtic music,'' Millar agrees.

''You can get a band like the Pogues doing traditional music but playing it in a more rocky style, with drums and everything else they do. And that's fine. It appeals to younger people.

''But even some of the songs we do, like Drunken Sailor, which is 350 years old ... you can add new musical elements to it and suddenly it's a new song. Folk music will be around as long as the world is. It is the music of the people.''

The group certainly has no shortage of hits from which to choose: Black Velvet Band, The Irish Rover, Wasn't That A Party, The Whistling Gypsy/Gypsy Rover and children's classics Puff the Magic Dragon and The Unicorn ... all are ''good-natured fun'', as Millar puts it.

''You have to enjoy what you're doing. You have to respect the music as well as one another. It's pretty obvious to people when you're not enjoying yourself.

''We don't get into the political side of Ireland and, God knows, we could certainly do that. We are a mixed bunch and we all know what has gone on in Ireland for, well, about the past 800 years.''

Formed by Millar and fellow Northern Irishman Jim Ferguson, who met at an Irish function in Toronto, the Irish Rovers have survived changes of personnel, management and record labels over the years.

As young Irish immigrants, the Rovers became part of the Canadian cultural fabric, so much so that Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau asked them to become Canadian citizens so they could officially represent the country.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the group had its own television series, which screened in Canada, the United States and, eventually, Europe. Among the guests were musical heavyweights Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Vera Lynn and Carl Perkins.

Yet the biggest prize for Millar was the appearance (several times) of British skiffle legend Lonnie Doneghan.

''He was our childhood hero. He even influenced the Beatles, so to have him on the show ... well, that was as important to me as having Cash or Roger Miller.''

And the secret to the group's longevity?A lack of egos among the band members.

''You leave them at the door when you come in,'' Millar says.

Although all current band members hail from Ireland, they live in various parts of the world.

''A couple of us live in Canada, three or four in Ireland and one in Florida. As much as we like one another, it's good to have a break,'' says Millar, who lives on Vancouver Island.

''This tour alone is five weeks, plus two shows in Hawaii on the way home. Some of us will stay in Hawaii for a couple of weeks for a bit of a vacation. Then we won't see one another again until after Christmas.

''By that time, you are excited about getting back together again. The music is fresh again, too,'' Millar says.

''It's not a job where you can say, 'OK, it's time to go home'. You live and breathe it.

''Even when we are in the car and everyone is talking, I might be writing a song in my head. It's just what show business is. You are immersed in the work.''


The show

• The Irish Rovers perform at the Dunedin Town Hall on Friday, October 17, as part of Arts Festival Dunedin.



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