After 45 years on stage, most bands might have had enough of the touring life, but it seems the Irish Rovers have a few more years and a few more albums in them.
“This is our 46th year we’re starting; 46 years as the same band and god knows how we did it,” said George Millar, who has been writing songs and performing with the band since they started in 1963.
Along with a brand new CD, Gracehill Fair, the Rovers are celebrating their 45th anniversary with a tour, including a stop at Cleland Theatre on Sept. 30.
“We’re coming up to the wild of B.C.,” joked Millar. “We’ve played the area before, oh six or seven years ago, so it was time to come back and see everybody and have a good time. That’s what this is all about.”
Having a good time is definitely what the band is about, according to Millar, who said they are lucky to have been able to make a living doing something they love.
“If any man or woman can say that at the end of the day, then they are blessed,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a writer, or a truck driver, if you’re happy at what you do then you’ve got it well.”
Their good fortune is entirely due to their fans, according to Millar, who said the band keeps telling themselves that they’ll just give it one more year and see how it goes.
“It has been going well all these years,” he said. “Without the fans, you don’t do something like this, you don’t have a career in music like we’ve had. And they continue to come out to this day to see us.”
That’s not to say there hasn’t been ups and downs over the years. Songs like The Unicorn (which Millar promises they will play at the Penticton concert) and many traditional Celtic ballads were early successes for the band as was their long-running television show.
The band reinvented itself in 1980 with Wasn’t That a Party, an album with a more country rock feel to the songs, bringing the Irish Rovers to a new generation. Or, The Rovers, at least; their record label convinced them to drop Irish from the band’s name.
“It lost us a lot of fans in New York and Boston, they didn’t like us dropping the Irish. It took us a few years to get them back and show them we were still the same band,” said Millar.
“If a song strikes our fancy, then we’ll do it. For instance, when we did Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, we never expected that was going to become a seasonal hit.It’s like the Unicorn, you don’t ever plan on them being hits.”
A resurgence of interest in Celtic music, which Millar attributes to the success of Riverdance, has brought the Irish Rovers back into the spotlight and irish music back into people’s living rooms.
But through it all, the focus for Millar has been making sure their audience goes away happy.
“We’ll be dong The Unicorn and the Orange and the Green and the Black Velvet Band. We throw in new songs, of course, to keep the band fresh, but we always do some of the old songs, because that’s what people like to hear,” said Millar. “If at the end of the night, they go out whistling The Drunken Sailor, then we’ve done our two hours of work and we’ve done it well. That’s all I’m concerned about.”
Music is universal, you can go all over the world and hear the same sort of rhythms, according to Millar, who is a music collector as well as a songwriter.
“We have an Irish drum called the bodhran, it’s a goat skin drum that you play with a stick,” he said. “Well, you’ll find that same drum all over the world, from the First Nations, to Inuit to the Maori.”
Millar likes to tell U.S. audiences that if it wasn’t for the Irish rovers, they wouldn’t have country and western music. “The pipes and the fiddles came over from Ireland and Scotland into the Ozark Mountains and places like that, and that’s where the drone of the fiddle became a five string banjo,” Millar said. “And that’s where a lot of the country music did indeed evolve, form those early Irish and Scottish songs.”
And while it’s all about the music, Millar said there’s a lot of another favourite Irish activity, storytelling, going on. One of the band members is from Cork and Millar likes to write story songs for him. The comical little songs go down well with the audience due to the singer’s Cork accent, Millar said.
“And of course, we have stories on stage. Some of them are probably old as the hills and people have heard them, but they are always polite enough to laugh again at them. So that’s nice that they do that,” said Millar.
“We don’t have any special message on our stage other than life’s a bit short, so let’s enjoy our two hours together, have a wee bit of a laugh and maybe a tear or two with some of these slow Irish songs. That’s what it’s all about.”