After 27 years, the Irish Rovers have a lot of "taking-you-back" power. But unlike so many groups that were popular in the '60s, this quintet

MUSIC has worn well. The years haven't outdated the poetry or the music - perhaps because the Rover brand of music has always dealt with the past.Whatever the reason, the Irish Rovers still convey magic. The years have been more than kind. If anything, the voices are stronger, richer, mellowed with age and resonant.

An Irish Rovers concert is a participatory event. And since the people who pay to hear them have typically loved them for years, there wasn't much need to teach anyone new words Wednesday night. We sang along, even with the new songs.

The packed house at Kingsbury Hall was captivated, from the sad, mellow strains of "Belfast," sung by Jimmy Ferguson, to the rollicking, clap-along rhythms of "Black Velvet Band" and the whimsical tale of Uncle Walter, who's always "Waltzing with Bears."

The Irish Rovers are brothers Will and George Millar, cousin Joe Millar, childhood friend Ferguson and new addition Wilcil McDowell. All but McDowell left their native Ireland as teenagers, and they started their musical careers from Canada. Since then, they've scattered far and wide. But their roots are plain in their music - and their roots are very definitely Ireland. In the words of Will Millar, "we may be keeping alive an Ireland that no longer exists. But we love it. Lord, we love it."

The breadth of the music is perhaps best demonstrated in "First Day on the Somme," the story of young men marching proudly to war, unaware of the death, destruction and horror that await them. The choruses alternate between "pack up your troubles in an old kit bag and smile, smile, smile," and "Tipperary." It is the saddest - and the most joyous - of songs.

The Irish Rovers are like that. They are a reminder that the world, and particularly Ireland, is tattered by chronic strife, infighting and death. But there's always a sun, a moon and "bloomin' heather." And there's always a brave young man with a song of love for a pretty girl.

I knew what I'd hear going into the concert: the most poignant of love songs balanced against the toe-tapping, rowdy "drinkin'-and-punchin' " songs.

Unfortunately, the sound wasn't up to par and it was impossible to hear the clever words that are a staple of the fast, fun tunes. The slow, quiet songs were a different story and every note and nuance was beautifully amplified.

But in the end, the so-so sound didn't matter. The Irish Rovers are a feeling. And those of us who love them (there were hundreds Wednesday night) came thirsty for the sounds we love. That thirst was quenched.