Dervish’s Harmony Hill & Playing with Fire

Brendan Foreman penned this review.

Dervish have been around since 1989, but apparently they didn’t bother recording themselves until 1992. This is perfectly acceptable, since it is clear that they used the time well, getting their chops and building a very justified reputation as one of Ireland’s premiere neo-traditionalist bands. After reviewing their ten-year “best of” CD, decade, I couldn’t wait to hear their music in more detail. I was not in the least disappointed. From the beginning, Dervish has helped keep the spark and imagination alive in the Irish musical tradition, as is clear from their work on these, their first two recorded CDs.

Although it was released very close to Playing with Fire, Harmony Hill was recorded well beforehand in 1992. For a freshman CD,Harmony Hill shows impressive musicianship and spunk. Starting with a sprightly set of jigs called “Apples in Winter,” Dervish presents well-played, rock-solid, and very enjoyable Irish traditional music, continuing on with various reels, slides and other jigs. To avoid homogeneity, each instrumental seems to emphasize a different instrument. The magic of “Apples in Winter” lies in a great interplay of mandolin and fiddle; “The Green Fields of Miltown” features a multitude of whistles and flutes with a solid back-up on the bones; and the accordion lords over the first part of the reel set “The Green Mountain,” replaced by an old-timey fiddle in the later section. The only thing that seems to be missing here, is a little flat-picked guitar. Nevertheless, what a small complaint that is; there is a subtlety to these arrangements that makes multiple listenings a necessity for these tunes.

Dervish seems to put as much work in their songs as their instrumentals. I described Cathy Jordan’s voice rapturously in my decade review; and upon hearing more of her singing, I’m willing to stand by that opinion. “Hills of Greenmore” is a wistful song about the otherworldly dangers of hunting. Cathy Jordan sings “The Fair of Bellaghy” as an a capella introduction to the forthright “The Ploughman.” “Welcome Poor Paddy Home” is a nostalgic look-back at the home that an Irish wanderer has left behind. A similar theme is found in the achingly beautiful “A Stor Mo Chroi.” “The Fair Maid” is an entertaining, if slightly bitter, song about a woman who joins the navy, in drag, as it were. For many of these songs, Dervish makes excellent use of the mandolin by playing the melody of Jordan’s lines right behind her, a technique which gives their sound a distinct lushness. However, the star of these songs is Cathy Jordan’s voice. She carries each song with confidence and excellent interpretation.

Dervish kept magic going with their second release, Playing with Fire. Again they present a rock-solid body of musical work that easily stands up with that of such luminaries as Altan, Clannad and the Bothy Band. From the rollicking reels of the first track “Buckley’s Fancy … ” to the final track, a set of slides and jigs called “Let Down the Blade,” there again an abundance of Irish tradition done very, very well as well as some great song titles, my favorite being “I Buried My Wife and Danced on Top of Her.”

There seems to be more of an ensemble mentality on Playing with Fire than on Harmony Hill. No one instrument stands out on any of these like before. Rather they’ve incorporated the entire band in all of the instrumentals, creating a slightly more complex harmonic and rhythmic structure to these tunes.

As for the songs, Dervish continues to grow. Cathy Jordan expands her range by adding more vocal interpretations than in Hill, where she sang each song more or less with little variation. As I mentioned in the decade review, Jordan’s vocals on “Molly and Johnny” take on a mischeivous, rather alluring, sting as Molly and Johnny fight over his going-away to the sea.

She takes a playful attitude in “Cailin Rua,” in which a man and woman flirt with each other rather over-lyrically. “Willie Lennox” chronicles the unfortunate adventures of the eponymous hero, who falls victim to a rather pointless bet.

Jordan also gets to sing in Gaelic in a couple of songs. In “Maire Mhor,” which opens with an astounding guitar and mandolin duet, her voice gets real depth as the male protagonist of the song learns what the correct method of seducing “Big Mary” is (it involves whisky). “Peigin mo chroi” is more-or-less the Irish version of “Three Nights Drunk,” in which a doltish farmer encounters clue after clue of his wife’s infidelities without really knowing what to make of them.

As shown by these CDs, Dervish started out as a strong Irish band and continued to improve and expand their style as time went on. If you’re looking for a good place to start an Irish folk collection, these CDs would be an excellent place to start.

(Kells Music, 1995)
(Whirling Discs, 1996)

About Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don’t always.

It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we’ve done the centuries.