Still Fiddlin’ Away

Kevin Burke
Kevin Burke

By Ian Worpole, Contributor
October / November 2008

From his days with The Bothy Band, some thirty years ago now, to the present, Kevin Burke, who was born in London to Irish parents, has been one of the most widely admired fiddlers on the Irish traditional and contemporary music scene. As an individual performer and as a member of acclaimed bands such as Patrick Street and Celtic Fiddle Festival, Burke, who now makes his home in Portland, Oregon, continues to delight audiences around the world. I caught up with him at East Durham, New York, Irish Arts week this past July.

IA: So Kevin, what have you been up to of late?
KB: What have I been up to? Well, after here I’m in Dublin, Ohio playing with Patrick Street and then I’ll be off to Goderich, Ontario for another week of fiddling, both teaching and performing. A few weeks ago I was in Ireland with Cal Scott.

Cal and I were guest lecturers at Limerick University and we did a few concerts around the country while we were over there. He and I have also been working on a book containing the transcriptions of all the pieces from Across the Black River, the CD we recorded together. When I’m not performing, recording or teaching, I’m making arrangements for upcoming tours and recordings, which can often be logistically difficult – and then there’s Loftus Music.

How is the Loftus label shaping up?

Everything is going very well with Loftus. The first year was pretty hectic as I found myself putting out three CDs – The Celtic Fiddle Festival’s Équinoxe, Patrick Street’s On The Fly, and the first Loftus Music CD, Across the Black River. This year I’m spending more time consolidating the company, arranging distribution for countries other than U.S., Ireland and England, and looking to future releases.  Across the Black River is still doing very well, so we are in the fortunate position of being able to proceed with the follow-up at a fairly leisurely pace.
Across the Black River has been receiving rave reviews, how did you meet Cal, who is a native of Oregon?

It began with a phone call. He was working on the soundtrack of a PBS documentary, The Road to Bloody Sunday, about the political strife in Northern Ireland. He thought that there was a place for some traditional music in the soundtrack and asked if I’d be willing to act as a consultant. When that project was completed Cal expressed an interest in learning more about Irish music. He liked my music, and I, in turn, soon became enamored of several of Cal’s compositions [some of which showed up on Across the Black River]. These regular meetings usually ended up with us recording whatever had been the topic of the day, mainly so we’d have a reference for our next meeting. Eventually we realized that there were probably enough recordings there to make up an album if we only put our minds to it and so, Loftus Music was born.

You’ve made your home in Portland, Oregon since the late 70s, what led you to settle there?

Micheál Ó Domhnaill and myself went there to play a concert as part of a tour. There was a gas shortage at the time. You could only buy gas every second day depending on whether you had an even or odd license plate, which made travelling to gigs difficult. In fact, we missed a couple and were more or less stranded in Portland for a few days. But we both liked the place, quickly made friends there and decided to stay for a while – and I’m still there, almost 30 years later.

You are a master fiddler of the “Sligo style.” Could you give us an idea of what that means?

It’s a difficult thing to put into words. It’s a bit like trying to describe a regional accent to someone who’s never heard it before. The best I can do is to say that, roughly speaking, the music from the north of the country tends to be quite fast and quite staccato (short bow strokes) and as you move south down the West Coast into County Clare the music becomes smoother and a bit more languid (longer, sweeping bow strokes). I think the slower pace, in general, encourages the musician to include more ornaments and variations, and Sligo sits in between the two extremes so the players there have the best of both worlds.  Also, I should let the readers know that I don’t really regard myself as an exponent of a typical Sligo style. It’s true that my parents are both Sligo people, I spent a lot of time there, and learned a lot of music there, especially in my formative years, but, over time I have absorbed many things from many other styles of music.

After the loss of Scottish player Johnny Cunningham, The Celtic Fiddle Festival took on French-Canadian fiddler André Brunet. The new CDs are great so it appears that he’s fitting in well.
André was an inspired choice. Losing Johnny was a terrible blow. We weren’t sure we could continue without him but there was a tour to do and canceling didn’t seem quite appropriate either. We got offers of help from several of Scotland’s best players but we realized that whoever came with us would be subject to comparisons with Johnny night after night, for the whole tour. And, of course, many of these musicians were good friends of Johnny and were also shaken by the loss, and so we thought that “emotionally” it was too much to ask of them. André came to mind, and he fit in immediately. He was very sensitive to the fact that we were still mourning the loss of a dear friend and long-time colleague, but his general demeanor was so upbeat and positive that he really lifted our spirits. He brought a whole new repertoire to the band, and he’s a fantastic fiddle player – that didn’t do us any harm either!

Compass Records is about to re-release your milestone CD If the Cap Fits, from 1974. Does it seem like just yesterday?

Funny you should bring that up – I just got a copy of the remastered version. I had a listen to it from start to finish (the first time I’ve done that, probably, since it first came out 30 years ago) and, of course, the memories started flooding back. I thought it sounded great. Compass Records have done a great job with the mastering and it’s really heartening to see the care and attention they are giving to this series of re-releases. People can look forward to the reissue of many great recordings from that late 70s era – a very exciting time in the history of Irish music.

So, of course, the $64,000 question: any chance The Bothy Band might ever get back together?

Well, you can never say “never” but my hunch is that it’s very unlikely, especially now that we’ve lost Micheál [ó Domhnaill, who died tragically from a fall in 2006]. For me, and I guess for everyone in the band, it would be odd doing a reunion without him. We did get together last year for a memorial concert in his honor and it really was a very wonderful, special evening of music. I enjoyed it to bits and it felt fantastic to be playing in the band again, but somehow I don’t see it happening. But, you never know.

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