“There was green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees.
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born,
The loveliest of all was the unicorn.”
The Unicorn engages all ages. Sung in diverse locales from elementary school concerts to rural pubs – often with gestures, though perhaps not the same ones – the tune spans generations. It seems fitting that the Irish Rovers, who made the famous song, also bring those generations together.
They celebrate five decades of folksy fun that people laugh and dance to despite the, at times, downcast lyrics.
“We’re a family act. We don’t curse, of course, and most of our songs are pretty easy to understand. Or then again, maybe because of our accent they don’t understand a bloody word we’re saying,” said songwriter and producer George Millar. “It’s just fun music … your toe starts tapping on its own despite the lyrics of a poor Irish patriot hung and drawn and quartered.
“People are singing along and clapping,” he added. “Irish music is just happy.”
That joy is the backbone of five decades of fellowship and fanfare for The Irish Rovers.
“You have to enjoy what you’re doing, and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be doing it. Usually the pressure’s gone after all these years,” he said. “Luckily the band likes each other, we get along well and we like the music. We’ll keep going ‘til we sputter.”
In the midst of their final world tour, the lads return to Vancouver Island to celebrate 50 years with a pair of concerts in Victoria and Nanaimo. One might think they’d retire after five decades, and while the lure of the bed at home beckons, that’s not the plan, according to Millar, who has homes in Oak Bay and Nanoose.
The lilt of Ireland still in his voice, Millar recalls, “It has been since I was 16 years old.”
“Every year we look back and say ‘maybe we’ll give it one more year and see how it goes,’” he says. “We’re never sure, we’re booked right now through 2016 … to finish off the American part of the tour.”
It all started in 1964 as they worked their way up to better clubs and a North American circuit starting with Colorado ski resorts that offered worldwide exposure with the amount of global visitors on those slopes.
While 50 years have passed, they’ve carefully crafted little change.
“We haven’t deviated too much … We just stayed doing what we were doing,” Millar said. “When I write [songs] I write them to sound old. They have to have that antiquated sound. We haven’t deviated from our plan of music for all those years, I think that’s why people keep coming back to us.”
Changes to the industry would perhaps have kept The Unicorn extinct these days.
“Recording techniques have changed. The Unicorn we recorded on an eight-track machine and Glen Campbell played guitar in 1968,” Millar said. “He became an international success after that … he called us his lucky band.”
Then it became No. 2 behind a Beatles tune.
“How did a little song without drum or piano slip onto the music chart?” Millar asked. “I don’t think a thing like that could happen today.”
After decades of touring, now Vegas is calling. The stages of Nevada hold the promise of a place where “we could plunk ourselves down a few weeks at a time,” Millar said, emphasizing that must be a little easier on the back.
Whether Vegas pans out or not, the Irish Rovers will keep a hand in with CDs, DVDs and events like big folk festivals.
“Our fans are still coming out to see us, you don’t have to be a certain age in this career … In Celtic music you can lose a bit of your hair and your belly can come over your belt,” Millar said with a chuckle. “lt’s been a wonderful life. Sounds like a Christmas movie but it’s true, the people have been great. The fans give me a chance to do something I like to do, and at the end of the day I get paid for it too.
“Life is awfully short … you do have to take it by the neck and just go with it. Enjoy it.”