For Dervish, the dance goes on

‘25 years of persevering and surviving, and enjoying it.

By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR

Their name evokes a wild and whirling dance so frenzied and transformative that it cannot possibly last. But even with almost 25 years behind them, for Dervish the dance goes on – and there’s no sign of it stopping.
The Sligo-based sextet took to the road late this winter in conjunction with the release of their 12th album, “The Thrush in the Storm,” and their travels took them through New England last month – including a surprise visit to The Burren in Somerville, where they played an approximately one hour-long late-night set.

All the band’s virtues were on peak display in The Burren’s warm confines, from the melodic musculature of fiddler Tom Morrow, accordionist Shane Mitchell, and flute-whistle player Liam Kelly, to their intrepid rhythmists, Michael Holmes and Brian McDonagh, whose bouzouki-mandola/mandolin pairings recall the double-course fretted-string bravura of Planxty and early De Dannan – and their dynamic lead singer and chief spokesperson Cathy Jordan (who also contributes bodhran and bones, occasionally guitar, as well as most of the stage patter – often delivered with a sly, deadpan wit).
“Always nice to be back in Boston,” said Jordan earlier that evening as she sat in a booth midway between The Burren’s front and back rooms, occasionally greeted by friends and fans. “There’s such a good following for music here, much more so than New York City. It’s easier to get ahold of everyone who’s interested in the music – the network here is much more solid.”
The focus of their performance that night, and elsewhere on the tour, of course, was on material from “The Thrush in the Storm,” their first studio recording in about five years, since “Travelling Show.” Where the latter release was about “pushing the bounds a bit,” she said – with covers of “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” Suzanne Vega’s “The Queen and the Soldier” and other contemporary songs as well as unusual settings of traditional ones, plus a slew of special guests such as Triona Ni Dhomhnail, Rick Epping, and their former bandmate, Seamie O’Dowd – the new album is a return to the roots.
“With ‘Travelling Show,’ it just kind of struck us that certain songs, with different treatment, can sound like they’ve been around for centuries. If you take a step back, get into a different context, and forget that ‘Gypsies Tramps and Thieves’ was Cher’s song, you get into the rhythm and the storyline and, well, it’s a little ballad.
“But for this new one, we wanted to be as traditional as possible. After having branched out, we wanted to go in reverse a little, start digging again for old songs and gems that had been lying dormant.”
Once Dervish had amassed the new material (or perhaps, more accurately, the new old material), they began incorporating it more into their stage appearances, so when they realized that “time was ticking away and we needed to get the album done for March,” they were good and prepared for the recording, said Jordan. The bulk of the work took about three days, she noted in praising producer Richard Ford and others involved behind the scenes in getting the CD done with relatively minimal fuss.
“After nearly 25 years,” she quipped with characteristic dryness, “we finally found the winning formula.”
“Winning” is one of many favorable adjectives that could describe “The Thrush in the Storm.” Morrow, Mitchell, and Kelly all hit their marks with aplomb, while Holmes and McDonagh frame the melodies with a delightful mélange of chords, counterpoints, and harmonies. “There’s an urgency about it,” said Jordan of the accompaniment. “And the tunes lend themselves to the particular way you back them, the chords just kind of jump out at you – although some are easier than others, of course.”
It doesn’t hurt that the very first tune on the album’s very first track is “The Man in the Bog,” by none other than Boston’s own Brendan Tonra; eventually, the jig set segues, infectiously (thanks to both fretted and bowed strings), into two reels. For “The Sheep in the Boat/Rolling Wave,” the band elicits every possible ounce of sweetness from this pair of slow jigs, particularly the latter, where the harmonies between Kelly, McDonagh, and Holmes are nothing short of exquisite. For contrast, on the title track, which begins with a reel played as a hornpipe, Mitchell leads headlong into the closing set of reels supported by Morrow’s groove-laden chording.
Jordan, meanwhile, invigorates the album’s songs with her earthy, multifaceted voice, capable of a delicate intensity as well as subtle playfulness when and where the song dictates. “Baba Chonraoi” is a tragedy in Gaelic of a girl faced with a desperate situation and a Hobson’s choice of a solution, and Jordan builds the dramatic tension with almost chilling effect. By contrast, “The Lover’s Token” (from the repertoire of the late, great Frank Harte) and “The Banks of the Clyde” are in the lost-lover-returned-home category with unremittingly gorgeous soundtracks, and Jordan lets you feel the tears-to-triumph narrative right in your gut. “Handsome Polly-O” — in which an army captain unwisely loses his heart — shows the band’s genius for arranging songs as well as tunes, Kelly and the team of McDonagh and Holmes taking turns accentuating the ballad’s martial character.
Categories and classifications often are more of interest to music journalists than those they write about, but Jordan does see a commonality between Dervish and bands like Altan and Solas, which might be described as part of the “second wave” of the modern Irish music revival that began in the 1960s and ’70s and saw a new direction in ensemble playing with the aforementioned Planxty and De Dannan, and the Bothy Band, to name a few. As she sees it, where those bands had broken down barriers, new ones were in place when Dervish came on the scene in 1989 (two years before she joined).
“I don’t think it was quite the boom that the ’70s were; it had kind of diminished a bit,” she explained. “Naively, I suppose, we didn’t look at how popular or unpopular the music might be. We just wanted to play, and we started up residencies in Ireland, and got crowds, and that got us going. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best time to start. Record companies wouldn’t touch anything with the trads, so we had to set up our own. It’s very easy now to find the agent, and get a network of people to look after things, but back then there was really no one to talk to, or to tell you what to do or who to contact, or how to do things. It was all a DIY [do-it-yourself] thing in many respects.
“So we fumbled along in the dark for a while. But we persevered anyway. And then you look up and you find it’s been 25 years of persevering and surviving, and enjoying it.”
Undoubtedly, the Planxtys, De Dannans, and Bothy Bands made a big impression on Dervish’s members as a group, said Jordan, but individually they had more immediate and meaningful influences. “Mine would’ve been at home, hearing my parents and neighbors around Roscommon singing or playing tunes. Liam, for instance, has so many flute players he’s enjoyed listening to in and around Sligo. But that’s just the traditional part of it: The likes of Brian and Michael, with the instruments they play, well, there’s a tradition that’s really just started to evolve, a blank canvas on which you can draw.”
Today, of course, it is Dervish that is one of the influences, role models and mentors for the next generation of Irish musicians. And Jordan is upbeat about the future of Irish music, even if the high tide of popularity it enjoyed during the late 1990s and early 2000s has recessed somewhat.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of frighteningly talented young guys and gals coming up,” said Jordan. “What’s great is, they’re playing the music for their enjoyment or their friends, not playing for a career, and that’s refreshing.
“In terms of world popularity, yes, Irish music has probably taken a dip because of the end of the Celtic Tiger, and after ‘Riverdance,’ but that’s the way it’s always been. Things change, move on. It’ll never go away, though, it’ll always be around.”