DERVISH – The Great Irish Songbook (Rounder Records)

The Great Irish SongbookDervish release The Great Irish Songbook on April 12th. I don’t really need to say very much more to persuade anyone to give this a listen. But, since that would be a rather short review, I will do.

The Band – Dervish have been playing Irish traditional music for nearly thirty years – in festivals as large as Rock In Rio (to an estimated quarter of a million people) or sessions as small as those in Sligo pubs where they still enjoy playing. They have a line-up which includes some of Ireland’s finest traditional musicians, fronted by one of the country’s best-known singers in Cathy Jordan. They’re renowned for live performances, dazzling sets of tunes and stunning interpretations of traditional songs.

The Music – Where would you start in choosing thirteen songs for an album called The Great Irish Songbook? How about ‘The Rambling Irishman’, ‘There’s Whiskey In The Jar’ and ‘Molly Malone’? These are the first three tracks on the album – all of them, I suspect, not only familiar to fans of Irish music but to anyone who has even a passing interest in listening to any kind music. Nor does the selection go downhill thereafter. Given the nature of this album, it’s probably worth listing the other tracks: ‘The Galway Shawl’, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’, ‘The Rocky Road To Dublin’, ‘Down By The Sally Gardens’, ‘On Raglan Road’, ‘Donal Og’, ‘The Fields Of Athenry’, ‘The May Morning Dew’, ‘The West Coast Of Clare’, finishing with (really, despite the Scottish claims to the song, what else would you chose?) ‘The Parting Glass’.

The Guests – The publicity for the album says “In assembling their line-up of featured guests, Dervish reached out to the many artists with whom they’ve bonded over a shared passion for Irish folk, then called on each musician to select their most cherished song within the genre. Recorded mainly at The Magic Room in Sligo, the finished product finds each collaborator imbuing the album with their own distinct sensibilities while lovingly upholding the time-honored character of the songs.” The guests on this album are a fine set of singers and players in their own right. They include: Steve Earle, Rhiannon Giddens, Vince Gill, Brendan Gleeson, Imelda May, Andrea Corr, Jamey Johnson, Kate Rusby, The Steeldrivers, Abigail Washburn, David Gray. They build on Dervish’s sound and, as Shakespeare might have it, their “friendship makes us fresh”.

I’ve enjoyed listening to this album, initially superficially but then much more closely. Firstly I’ve listened to the musicianship and the fresh approach to songs I’ve known for a while and, secondly, I realised I didn’t really know the history to many of these songs and have spent time researching them with the album playing at the same time. Some are newer than I’d realised, some much older. All give an insight into the history of Ireland, its music and, in some cases, its poetry.

If you’re well versed in the Irish tradition, this is a great album for hearing some different takes on songs – the video link below, for example, takes you to ‘The West Coast Of Clare’ and features David Gray. If you want to introduce yourself or someone else to The Great Irish Songbook, it’s a pretty good starting point.

Mike Wistow

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‘The West Coast Of Clare’: