As one of the world’s most renowned and imaginative interpreters of Irish folk music, Dervish have devoted the last three decades to gently reinventing the traditional songs of their homeland. On their debut release for Rounder Records, the Sligo-based band take that effort to a new level by joining up with over a dozen luminaries across an eclectic range of genres. Featuring such beloved artists as Vince Gill, Steve Earle, and David Gray, The Great Irish Songbook both preserves the boundless spirit of each song and brings a whole new vitality to iconic traditional songs of their homeland, one that’s sure to endure for generations to come.
Throughout The Great Irish Songbook, Dervish build off the dynamic they’ve brought to their 13 previous albums and dazzling live performance: a kinetic union of technical brilliance and undeniable soul, endlessly fortified by their immense creativity. With the help of their guest artists, Dervish’s intricately sculpted sound expands and widens and takes on new textures, revealing the limitless possibilities within a single song. The result is an album that instantly transports you to a more charmed state of mind and—like all the most illuminating journeys—imparts a deeper understanding of what’s most essential in life.
Produced by Graham Henderson (a musician known for his work with artists like Sinéad O'Connor), The Great Irish Songbook delivers 13 of the most iconic and best-loved songs in the Irish tradition. In assembling their lineup 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.
In fact, The Great Irish Songbook drew such intense interest from musicians around the world, Dervish ended up generating nearly five albums’ worth of material in the process of making the album. That enthusiasm speaks not only to Dervish’s esteem within the music world, but to the depth and splendor of Irish folk itself. To that end, The Great Irish Songbook encompasses everything from lovelorn ballads to traditional dance music to songs customarily sung at funerals, its moods continually shifting from longing to joy to delicately rendered heartache. And with so much pure feeling poured into every line and lyric, it’s all but impossible not to get swept up in the songs, an element that lends the album a quietly cathartic and restorative power.
Within its first few tracks alone, The Great Irish Songbook shows the extraordinary scope of the album and the musicianship behind it. On “There’s Whisky in the Jar,” for instance, Nashville-based bluegrass band The SteelDrivers channel their freewheeling energy into one of the most widely performed traditional Irish tunes of all time (recorded by everyone from Thin Lizzy to Metallica to Jerry Garcia), capping the song off with a sweetly rambling Irish reel. Then, just a track later, Irish singer/songwriter Imelda May brings her mesmerizing vocal work to a particularly poignant take on “Molly Malone,” joining Dervish in adding new warmth and vigor to the unofficial anthem of Dublin.
Poetry also infuses much of The Great Irish Songbook, such as on the Kate Rusby-sung rendition of “The Sally Gardens” (a W.B. Yeats-penned serenade) and the D.K. Gavan-authored “Rocky Road to Dublin,” a 19th-century story-song delivered with unabashed brio by famed Irish actor (Harry Potter) and part-time fiddle player Brendan Gleeson. Meanwhile, “On Raglan Road” transforms Patrick Kavanagh’s lovesick verse into a moment of sublime melancholy, thanks in no small part to the tender tenor of country star Vince Gill.
One of the two newly written pieces on The Great Irish Songbook, “The West Coast of Clare” unfolds as an exquisitely stark number threaded with the soulful vocals of Welsh singer-songwriter David Gray. And in an especially glorious offering, Steve Earle accompanies Dervish for a wistful yet rousing version of “The Galway Shawl,” closing out the track with a full-hearted sing-along. “To me that really captures the whole essence of this record,” notes accordion player Shane Mitchell. “It’s real people singing real music with great character and joy, and there’s a very strong feeling of friendship. I hope it makes everyone want to sing along with their friends, and I hope it makes them want to come sing in Ireland too.”
Such potent camaraderie has long suffused the music of Dervish, whose founding members were childhood friends in County Sligo—the same creatively fertile region that spawned a group of legendary fiddle players who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s, then recorded the first known Irish-music albums of any genre. “We’re very much like a family band, though we’re not actually family,” says Mitchell. “We grew up playing around pubs in Sligo, then went our separate ways but all kind of missed each other.” In 1988, the musicians reunited when the opportunity to record an album arose, then made their debut with 1989’s lavishly acclaimed The Boys of Sligo. Despite feverish response from all around the world, Dervish turned down record-deal offers and launched their own label, releasing their sophomore effort Harmony Hill in 1993 and immediately seeing the album climb the Irish charts.
Through the years, Dervish have toured the globe and shared stages with the likes of James Brown, Neil Young, and Sting, becoming the first Irish band ever to play Rock in Rio (the world’s most massive music festival), and steadily making their name as one of the foremost purveyors of Irish folk music. “We’ve always seen ourselves as holding this music for the next generation,” Mitchell points out. “It’s like a painting that’s always existed, and now we’re just putting a new frame around it.”
As they approach their 30th anniversary, Dervish again prove the enduring significance of even the most timeworn songs. And in a way not unlike the folk revival of the 1960s, much of The Great Irish Songbook celebrates a spirit of togetherness, with a conviction that’s gracefully understated but powerfully felt. For Dervish, that sense of community and connection is both an ideal takeaway for the album and the driving force of its creation. “With this record we brought in people from genres sometimes totally unrelated to what we do, but still found a way to create some beautiful music together,” says Mitchell. “I think that’s an incredibly important thing to consider in life as well, especially now: everyone can find a way to collaborate, even if you’re coming from what feels like completely different places.”