Irish Rovers almost done roving

Celtic group is on a farewell tour, which is stopping in SLO on Tuesday

slinn@thetribunenews.comJanuary 23, 2014 

The Irish Rovers.

PHOTO COURTESY OF HAMISH BURGESS

After five decades of touring, one of Canada’s most popular Celtic bands is bidding the road goodbye.

“The day-to-day travel is just getting very, very hard,” explained singer-guitarist George Millar of The Irish Rovers, as well as expensive.

Rather than fade away quietly, the Rovers are embarking on one final tour, titled, appropriately, “Farewell to Rovin’.” Joining the band on the road are multi-instrumentalist Morris Crum, whistle-flute player Geoffrey Kelly and fiddler Gerry O’Connor.

Millar can trace the Irish Rovers’ origins to a 1963 Irish music concert in Toronto.

Organizers asked him and his future bandmate, fellow Northern Ireland immigrant Jimmy Ferguson, to fill in for five minutes “because one of the singers was as drunk as a skunk,” Millar recalled. They performed a folk song familiar to any Emerald Isle schoolboy, “The Irish Rover.”

The duo was soon joined by Millar’s cousin, Joe, and brother, Will, and the Irish Rovers were born. Although the band enjoyed a strong following in Calgary, Alberta, the Rovers didn’t really get their start until they arrived in California in 1966, Millar recalled. They spent five months playing at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub and recorded their first album, 1966’s “The First of the Irish Rovers,” at The Ice House in Pasadena.

In those days, “If we made $300 or $400 between us, we were delighted,” he said. “It was not the money. It was the songs. It was the delight of being onstage.”

The Irish Rovers scored their first major hit with “The Unicorn,” the title track of their 1968 album. The Shel Silverstein song, which featured country legend Glen Campbell on lead guitar, reached No. 2 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary Charts.

In 1971, after appearances on television shows including “The Dating Game,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Virginian,” the Grammy Award-nominated Rovers were invited to host their own Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show.

“The Irish Rovers,” which attracted such high-profile guests as Bobby Darin, Johnny Cash and The Clancy Brothers, ran for seven years and spawned two sequels — 1981’s “The Rovers Comedy House” and “Party with the Rovers,” which ran from 1984 to 1986.

The band has also filmed a number of TV specials, including 2011’s “Home in Ireland” and 2012 “The Irish Rovers Christmas.”

Although the Irish Rovers have represented Canada at five world expos — they became Canadian citizens at the request of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau — “We never set out to be ambassadors of any type,” Millar said. “We just set out to have a bit of fun.”

Over the decades, the Rovers have released more than 40 albums featuring a mix of traditional Irish music and crossover hits such as “Wasn’t That a Party” and “Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer.” The latter remains one of their most popular covers, Millar said.

“We could be singing somewhere in July and people will yell out, ‘Sing “Grandma,” ’ ” he said.

Most recently, the Irish Rovers released a nautical album, 2012’s “Drunken Sailor.” An old Irish Rovers recording of the title tune has garnered about 11.5 million views on YouTube since 2008.

The band is now working on a triple-disc set, “The Irish Rovers — 50 Years,” that will combine original recordings, reworkings of favorites such as “The Orange and the Green” and “The Black Velvet Band” and brand new songs including “Raise a Glass to St. Patrick.”

Asked about the secret to band longevity, Millar compared the members’ relationship to a marriage. (The band’s current lineup includes Joe Millar’s son, Ian, as well as Fred Graham, Wilcil McDowell, Sean O’Driscoll and John Reynolds.)

“You have to like each other and you have to get along because you’re going to be living in close quarters for the first 10 years,” he said. “You have to like the same style of music…. (And) you have to respect each other. There’s a lot of give and take.”

Millar said the Rovers plan to continue playing, recording and making “the odd public appearance.” Besides, he cautioned, they could always stage a comeback.

“Cher is on her fourth farewell (tour) and we’re only on our first,” he said. “Who knows? We could be doing this when we’re 90.”

IF YOU GO

The Irish Rovers
7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$20 to $38
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.

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