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The Irish Rovers Look to Stay Put

For a half of a century, the Irish Rovers have brought traditional-sounding Irish folk music to the world.

The septet of Irish-born, Canada-based musicians are performing on their Farewell to Rovin’ tour, which will be the band’s final tour of the United States.

The Rovers — which still include founding member George Millar and 48-year veteran Wilcil McDowell along with Morris Crum, Ian Millar (George’s cousin), Fred Graham, Sean O’Driscoll, Geoffrey Kelly and touring member Gerry O’Connor — will not be breaking up. But after 51 years of life as globe-roving Irish troubadours, group members are ready to leave long international flights and long nights on the bus behind them.

Millar, 66, the group’s primary songwriter, said the Rovers will continue to record and release albums on its independent Rover Records label and will continue to make periodic live appearances at festivals. Also, the group has received queries about doing multi-night stands in cities such as Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe.

Millar said he’ll miss performing for fans and interacting with them after the show, a longstanding Rover tradition, but admitted that while his heart may still be willing, his back and a few other body parts have had just about enough of life on the road.

But forlorn fans of the band will at least get one more opportunity to hear all their favorites because for the final U.S. tour, the Rovers have crowd-sourced the set list, allowing Facebook fans/friends to pick their favorite Rovers songs, which include tunes such as The Black Velvet Band, Drunken Sailor — the band’s traditional concert closer — and Shel Silverstein’s The Unicorn.

Members of the Irish Rovers, past and present, were born in Ireland save Kelly, who is a Scotsman. But the group was formed in Canada after Millar and McDowell emigrated in the early 1960s and named for the traditional Irish tune of the same name.

After several weeks of rehearsing, the newly minted group took a trip down to San Francisco and got booked at the Purple Onion, where other popular folk groups such as the Kingston Trio were regular performers. The Rovers’ good-time drinking songs and easygoing stage banter made the band unique among the more political-minded folk acts of the day.

Throughout the Rovers’ history, Millar has made it a point to not record overtly political material. He said the band’s members are from all over Ireland and contain both Catholics and Protestants. He also said members want to entertain and educate folks about the music and not the politics of their homeland.

The young group worked the club circuit across the U.S. until being discovered by a Decca Records label executive. He allowed the band’s debut album, The First of the Irish Rovers (1966), to be a live recording from one of its tour mainstays, the Ice House in Pasadena, Calif.

With a recording contract, the group needed more songs so it recorded Silverstein’s The Unicorn, which Millar had been performing on his Canadian children’s show. The song became a top 10 hit on the Billboard 100 in 1968 despite folk music’s waning popularity and the band was a bona fide, if unlikely, hit-making group.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s the Rovers made numerous appearances on American television including The Smothers Brothers, The Dating Game and a few episodes of the western series The Virginian. The group’s first of three television shows on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation started in 1971 and ran for seven years. It included guests such as Johnny Cash, Glenn Campbell and Bobby Darrin.

In the ’80s, the group had a novelty hit with its rendition of Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer and other Canadian chart-making tunes, such as Tom Paxton’s Wasn’t That a Party and Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.

Then in the 1990s, a little Broadway show called Riverdance pushed Irish music and dance into the stratosphere of American pop culture. Millar happily credits Riverdance with opening doors for other Irish acts, both traditional and contemporary.

Though the Rovers are known for performing traditional and original Irish music in the traditional acoustic style, Millar admits that the band alters the format to make the music more palatable for American and Canadian audiences — noting that some Irish tunes contain upwards of a dozen verses that he truncates and his own songs adhere to a more traditional pop format.

Though a veteran, Millar appreciates the music of more bands and artists that add contemporary touches to the genre. He specifically name-dropped bands such as Celtic-punks the Dropkick Murphys, Canadian Celtic-rockers the Great Big Sea and the Irish/New Age/pop artists such as Celtic Woman and Celtic Thunder as groups that attract new fans that might just find their way to the Irish Rovers’ section of iTunes.

In that section, fans and curious listeners will find a new compilation called The Irish Rovers - 50 Years, a career-spanning collection of recordings dating back to the band’s debut and, of course, Drunken Sailor.

The three-disc compilation, which also comes as two separate volumes, also has a few new tunes written by Millar.

The Irish Rovers’ 51 year journey is not quite over. The band will continue to add to its more than 50-record catalog, but it will be taking smaller and fewer steps while still carrying the torch for (mostly) traditional Irish folk music.