Asheville’s love affair with Celtic music is evidenced by the Celtic Mainstage Series at Diana Wortham Theatre. Sponsored by The Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College, this thriving series consists this year of four concerts with Dervish as the lead band. Dervish members hail from western Ireland and include Liam Kelly (flute and whistles), Tom Morrow (fiddle and viola), Shane Mitchell (accordion), Michael Holmes (bouzouki), and singer Cathy Jordan (vocals, bohdrán and bones). Brian McDonagh, usually there playing mandola and mandolin, was absent due to the death of his father. No matter – the show blazed on, energizing a full house. The concert was dedicated to the memory of Laurey Masterton, a local businesswoman who did so much good for Asheville (who, incidentally, had catered much of the food provided for the artists at Diana Wortham), and who lost her battle with cancer last week.

Dervish is one of the most impressive Irish bands I’ve heard. In an age when sheer virtuosity and pumped up volume are the main fare in such concerts, this group performed with a much more mature and inclusive musicianship. Sure, the fiery red sets were there (and they can play just as fast, high, and loud as the next Irish band), but there was a substantial part of their program devoted to softer music – slow hornpipes played in a tempo underscoring their lyrical beauty, and sad and sweet songs – which is what made this concert such a satisfying evening of music making. Cathy Jordan is a real charmer and a jewel of a host/storyteller/interpreter of the songs she sang. She is also an amazing percussionist and anchored the rhythm section by sitting in the center of the band. Her wicked sense of humor ruled the evening, as she summarized even the lyrics of the saddest songs with funny off-hand remarks worthy of a stand-up comedienne. She noted the irony of their opening set “Heading Home,” played just after a tribute to Masterton was given from the stage, and did it with such good grace that the audience knew she could handle just about anything. And their show ran the gamut, from dazzling dance sets to mournful and humorous ballads. A big thanks to the group and the sound engineers for not over-amplifying the show.

After the opening set of reels called “Heading Home,” several selections were drawn from their newest album The Thrush in the Storm. “Maggie’s Lilt,” a barn dance, saw Jordan pick up the bones for a clacking rhythmic track. In “The Rookery,” we saw the accordion play chords or a simple bass line before erupting in unison with the other solo lines. The additive principle of starting with one or two instruments with others creeping in, thickening both texture and volume, was used over and over throughout the evening. Kelly and Morrow are masterful players with flawless technique and impressive expressive ranges. Mitchell and Holmes provided much of the infectious rhythmic drive and harmonic coloring of this enchanting music.

For me, the songs were the highlights of the evening. Jordan’s voice is sweet and pure without much vibrato. Her ornamental style is richly varied, lending real pathos to songs such as “The Lover’s Token.” With Bob Dylan’s poignant dialog song “The Boots of Spanish Leather,” Jordan’s voice beautifully characterized each of the lovers who are to be parted. Her sense of fun and mischief came across loud and clear in the clipped, fast-moving lyrics to “Red haired Mary,” and the requisite timing and spacing were there for the sentimental “Welcome Poor Paddy Home.” For an encore she came alone on stage for the singing of a heartfelt song (“The Fallen Lass,” perhaps) dedicated not only to Masterton but also to McDonagh’s father; she  performed it with such mesmerizing beauty that the audience was stilled into total silence. One more blazing set of reels finished one of the finest concerts of Celtic music I’ve heard.