K-State’s McCain Auditorium series has been using the Wareham downtown as a second house, a smaller auditorium into which it can bring musical acts for 7:00 and then 9:00 shows. The Wareham is where we saw Cyrus Chestnut’s terrific Jazz set and the reputable performance of Kathy Mattea.
Well, on Fake Patty’s Day, the old vaudeville house hosted the Irish music band Dervish. This expert outfit last played MHK in 2005, by which time their line-up was already set. And the line-up is key to the kind of show Dervish delivers.
The black-clad and generally graying band members are singer and percussionist Cathy Jordan, Brian Mc-Donagh playing tenor mandolin and singing back-up, Michael Holmes playing bouzouki (essentially an even longer-necked mandolin), flautist and backing singer Liam Kelly, accordion wizard Shane Mitchell, and fiddler Tom Morrow.
No pipers. No bass. Bodhran only in stretches. Nothing to drone or emphasize the rhythm at the bottom of the scale. And then all six of the musicians had the discipline to maintain their lines, so that solo voices tended to get doubled or tripled and the rhythm lines, played mostly on the longer-necked stringed instruments, went on steadily and without internal embellishment.
In fact, more than a few of the arrangements held instruments out of action for long periods, particularly at the beginning of songs, and then could withdraw them for a verse or so before letting them back in.
So this was consciously made music, not inspired improvisation. In this Dervish is different even from the Irish groups we’ve heard recently.
Another personnel detail also influenced the show by requiring the band to play mid to lower tempo songs. If you have Cathy Jordan’s voice to showcase, you’ve got to pick songs for her. And Irish vocal numbers tend to be ballads.
Now the crowd at the early show in the Wareham obviously adored Jordan. But they came alive when the band cut into rollicking dance numbers.
Dervish went some distance to introduce even a little slower tempo instrumental stuff into their performance. Their fifth number was a pair of jigs (6/8 time) played at a deliberate rate—not quick in the way jigs generally are. What was most surprising about this experiment is that the band’s soloists didn’t try to fill the additional audial space the odd pace made. That sort of restraint suggests intellectual discipline of a sort I don’t think we usually associate with bar bands. Were they with us to feed our need for speed on a day when people come to town from all over the state to drink? Or were they responsible for giving us what they could do best?
The members of Dervish wisely cut back and forth from vocal numbers to usually faster dance instrumentals. And we were thoroughly entertained for an hour and twenty minutes or about 14 songs, none of them familiar standards and all of them exceptionally well played and sung.
Now the method Dervish used to get off the stage was to send Jordan out by herself for the first half of the encore, and to have her sing something that allowed her to show off her ability to hit notes full all the way through her range. She showed off her mic technique, which was admirable, and to give us an additional opportunity to enjoy that metallic tone one sometimes hears in female Irish and Country singers.
And then the rest of the band came on, introduced with warnings that they had to wrap up our show to allow the audience for the second show in. They played another of those dance arrangements that seems to get a little extra kick at the beginning of each new verse, often because another instrument has taken a running start to get into the mix.
But because we’d been warned, and because the house lights came on, we didn’t try to demand even more from Dervish. Though more is what we wanted.