Dervish is not your usual type of name for an Irish band, at least, not for a band playing traditional Irish music. But the name goes a long way to explaining the approach this Sligo-based septet takes: wild and swirling, but also deep and spiritual. The music of Ireland reflects its history and culture and there are few bands that can produce the drive and power of the dance along with the passion of its ballads the way Dervish does.
With seven talented individuals who work well alone and in various combinations, the permutations are plentiful. Brian McDonagh plays mandola, leaning into his microphone, staring distantly with a fearful intensity. The ringing of his instrument is at the heart of the band’s sound. Across the stage from him, Michael Holmes creates a sonic foil with his deeper bubbling bouzouki. Together they produce a telepathic synchronized accompaniment. Singer Cathy Jordan sits center stage and flows seamlessly and sweetly into this tight-knit sound with bodhran and bones. Seamus O’Dowd adds guitar (both six- and twelve-string). He bridges melody and rhythm by cleverly switching between picking the tunes and strumming percussively within the evolving patterns. Dervish possesses one of the tightest, most inventive, rhythm sections imaginable.
On this fertile bed, Liam Kelly (flute, whistle), Shane Mitchell (accordion) and Tom Morrow (fiddle) are able to thrive and flourish. Their rich sounds, dynamic pairings and progressive styles take the tunes to a higher level. Add to this the singing of Jordan, her wide range and deep intensity, and you are as close to perfection as you can get.
Because of a few technical problems, the band took the stage in Harrisburg a little behind schedule, but the moment they walked on, they transported the audience into another world. Although this was a 600-plus seat theater, the gulf between audience and musician evaporated with the first notes. Dervish run a pub in Sligo Town where you can find some mighty fine sessions taking place during the evenings. Breaking barriers, Dervish on stage recreates that atmosphere from back home.
There is a distinct Dervish sound, one that has been present since their earliest days. It’s a sound that emerges from the tightness in playing. Combining spontaneity and exuberance, they possess all the elements found in a top-quality session. But they also have an awareness of each other’s playing and of the qualities of the instruments. They create appealing arrangements of great complexity.
The “College Groves” set of reels demonstrated this to perfection as it began with a fiddle and bouzouki duet on the title tune. This was followed by accordion and guitar on the second, leading on to flute and mandola for the third tune before everybody dived headlong into the final piece to round out the set. The textures and flavors of the combinations were tantalizing as they switched from one pairing to another without a false step.
Jordan is the main speaker and she has developed a delightful approach to charming her audience. (If ever she gives up singing, there’ll be a career awaiting her on the comedy stages around the world.) Even as she speaks, her hypnotic voice draws you in. In her black boots, turned up white pants, floral frock and headband, she is shabby chic personified. And when she starts to sing, it’s then that you are truly mesmerized.
Three of the seven pieces in the first set were songs: “The Soldier Laddie”, a set of lilting songs from Connemara, and “Lone Shanakyle”. The first, the well-known piece by Robert Burns, was given a strong treatment by the band, especially with O’Dowd and Kelly’s vocals backing. The last was a heart-wrenching song which deals with the Great Famine; Jordan’s flute-like voice creating a tense poignancy by breathing the lyrics at times rather than singing them. In contrast, the Connemara tunes, which also featured O’Dowd taking some lead, were light and playful.
The second set also contained three songs by Jordan. “The Cocks Are Crowing”, a warm, poetic song of courtship; “Peigin Mo Chroi”, a sing-along long in the band’s repertoire; but the pièce de résistance without doubt was their version of Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”. It is almost as if Dylan had Jordan in mind when he wrote the song, so well does it suit her; her voice ranges from sweet and fragile to dark and dusky.
Seven sets in each half (plus two encores) may not seem a great deal. But the band played a full two hours, included excellent introductions to each piece, and gave full range for each musician to demonstrate their talents. The songs and tunes had time to develop and personalities were allowed to shine through.
Dervish traces its roots back at least 15 years when the quartet of Holmes, Kelly, McDonagh and Mitchell, together with fiddler John McGinley, recorded a cassette album for a small Sligo-based company in 1988. Jordan joined in time for the first official release and O’Dowd and Morrow rounded out the band in the late ‘90s. Is it any wonder that with such a stable lineup and real commitment, Dervish is one of the strongest bands on the scene, leading the way in Irish traditional music? And is it any wonder that Dervish consistently presents one of the most exhilarating performances imaginable.