An Irish Tale

How one band rose from impoverished childhood to performances on the Strip

Musician Derek Dempsey loves telling the story of fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde’s 1882 tour of America. His favorite part is when the playwright visited Nevada and entertained miners with performances of his writing. Dempsey sees Wilde’s tour as a sort of pedigree for his own Nevada entertainment offerings with Paul Cray: The Cray and Dempsey Experience.

It’s a genre-bending musical duo that incorporates traditional Irish folk music with a modern and eclectic sound. They reinvent a wide variety of songs—everything from “Snoop Dogg for President” to piano-bar staple “Sweet Caroline.” “I have to love the song,” Dempsey says of his band’s playlist. “I will not do anything that doesn’t touch me.”

He’s willing to stick to his beliefs, even if it means earning less money. “Music knows nothing of limousines,” he says. Nonetheless, his favorite songs are by the limousined class: Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and the Alicia Keys/Jay-Z’s collaboration, “Empire State of Mind.” Cray and Dempsey’s act makes them an ideal band to play an Irish pub on the Strip. Little wonder that they’re one of Rí Rá’s (in the Shoppes at Mandalay Place) most popular bands. Dempsey, who lives in New York and travels to Vegas to perform, calls their gigs at Rí Rá a “marriage made in heaven.”

But before the 43-year-old became a jet-setting musician, he and Cray grew up in extreme poverty in Dublin, Ireland. Dempsey remembers walking around with holes in his shoes. He believes the experience gave him and his partner the ability to “laugh at life when it happens to you.” which, in turn, helps them make the audience laugh.

“We want the audience to have the best time,” Dempsey says. “If you make people laugh, then you’re funny. We know what to do.”

Dempsey moved to the United States in 1999, and has been playing in The Cray and Dempsey Experience for 10 years. While that may be a long time for some bands, Dempsey is just getting started. “Real performers never retire,” he says. “You’re either sick or your dead.”

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