Copyright © Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. This article is reprinted here by permission of Earle Hitchner.
Of Sligo parents, London-born Kevin Burke is an Irish traditional fiddler who has lived in America for nearly 20 years now. Earle Hitchner recently talked to him about his first live solo recording and tour.
Few fiddlers in the Irish tradition have ever felt comfortable or confident enough to record an album of their solo playing in concert. A recording studio provides the psychological cushion for repeat takes to correct any errors or to splice in digitally a “perfect” note or two.
A faithfully complete live recording often captures the energy and electricity of the moment that many studio recordings cannot approach, but it’s just as often a warts-and-all proposition: a slip or subtle flub in concert can wind up on disk and thereafter haunt the musician who made it.
Kevin Burke had no such qualms about his latest Green Linnet album, “Kevin Burke in Concert,” his fourth solo release overall and first done live.
“I really liked the idea of doing a live recording on my own,” he said from his home in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and their four-year-old daughter.
Certainly, Burke is no stranger to concert recordings, having done two with the Bothy Band (in Paris and in London), two from tours with the Celtic Fiddle Festival, and one from a 1998 British tour with Patrick Street. The seed for this solo recording--coming 15 years after his previous one, “Up Close”--was sown by the aptly named Tom Plant.
“He runs the Acoustic Coffee House in Colorado,” Burke said, “and has asked me to play solo there for the last three or four years around St. Patrick’s Day. The last time I was there, he said he had a bunch of recordings of me going back years. Tom said some of them sounded pretty nice and that I might want to release them or, at least, have a listen to them.
“So I did, and I thought it would be a good idea. But it proved unwieldy, putting together bits and pieces of concerts spanning four years. I felt my own live recording needed to sound basically the same, drawn from the same concert or series of concerts, in the same room with the same mikes and the same fiddle, rather than spread out over time and different places. I was talking to Chris Teskey [chief operating officer of Green Linnet Records] and Martin Hayes around the same time, and Martin suggested doing just that, recording a whole new gig.
“I had already agreed to do a concert here in Portland at the Artichoke [folk-music store with a large back room for performances] before we decided to record it. The concert wasn’t set up simply to record, and we didn’t set up the recording specially for that concert. Martin came down from Seattle with his equipment, and we recorded one night last December. It seemed to go really well, so just to be sure, we recorded a second night. Afterward, when we heard the tapes, we thought it worked, and so we put it out.”
The tunes Burke plays on his live solo recording debut cut a wide swath through his career, from the first solo album he had ever done, “Sweeney’s Dream” (a Folkways LP recorded in 1973 and released in 1977), right up to albums made with Jackie Daly, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, the Bothy Band, Patrick Street, Celtic Fiddle Festival, and Open House.
“There were some things I wanted to do because they make me feel comfortable in a live concert,” he said of the album’s tune selections. “I just like performing them. But I didn’t have a very strong plan of what to put on the CD until after I heard the tapes. After a while, it started to take the shape of a retrospective. I also recorded a bunch of stuff I never recorded before, though not much of it made it onto the CD.” One new tune that did make it onto the CD was “Kitty O’Shea,” a seven-part hornpipe Burke picked up from Skip Parente, a former fiddler with the Irish traditional-American roots band Touchstone.
“I think I may have heard Tommy Peoples play it as well, but Skip was the one to write it out for me.” On the album Burke also pays frequent tribute to musicians whose style and taste had an impact on his playing, among them Michael Coleman and Paddy Killoran. Tunes associated with these Sligo fiddling legends include “Bonnie Kate/Jenny’s Chickens,” reels cut by Coleman in 1934 and forever linked thereafter, “Up Sligo,” a jig recorded by Coleman in 1924, and “McFadden’s Handsome Daughter,” a favorite reel of Killoran. In talking about his new recording, Burke offered a personal anecdote about Coleman and Killoran from his first visit to America in the early 1970s.
“One cold, miserable day, I tried to find Michael Coleman’s grave in St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, New York,” he said. “I was used to churchyards in Ireland, where you could cover the whole thing in about 10 minutes. But this place was huge, acres and acres, and I finally gave up. Just as I was leaving, though, I saw Paddy Killoran’s headstone. Here I had come to find Coleman, and I found Killoran instead, which was an ironic twist, I thought.”
The release of the live album, says Burke, kindled his interest in doing a solo concert tour--his first ever--this past May along the East Coast of the U.S.
“One kind of fed the other,” he explained. “I’ve been asked quite a lot over the last few years to do a solo performance here and there, but usually I did it on my way to do a tour with somebody else or on my way home from a tour. I was a little apprehensive about doing a whole tour just by myself, and I wasn’t sure if I’d like all that time on my own. That’s why I took it gently at first and kept it short. But it was very encouraging, and I’ve got another solo tour planned for June in the Midwest and I hope to do still another along the West Coast later this year.”
Celtic Fiddle Festival, featuring fellow fiddlers Johnny Cunningham and Christian Lemaitre, and Patrick Street, a band with whom he’s played for 13 years and recorded 7 albums, will also take up much of Burke’s time in the future. Both groups have enjoyed considerable success and remain in demand. That’s not true, however, of Open House, comprising Burke, Paul Kotapish on guitar, cittern, and mandolin, Mark Graham on harmonica, clarinet, and frequently satiric songs, and dancer Sandy Silva doing what the band calls “foot percussion.” Very popular along the West Coast of the U.S., where all four members lived at the time, Open House never really caught on elsewhere with their unusual mix of Irish, Continental, American, and original music.
“Outside the West Coast, it was difficult for people to know what we were at,” said Burke. “Even on paper it looked a bit weird. Open House was a tough band to sell, and we had trouble with agents too.” After seven years and three albums together, the quartet disbanded this past January. The demise of Open House, however, will not slow Burke down.
Now 49 years old, he has amassed the kind of musical résumé--Christy Moore and Arlo Guthrie included--that suggests his silky but never slick fiddling will always find a receptive audience, whether as a band member or, recently and happily, as a soloist.
Award-winning American journalist Earle Hitchner writes on Irish and other Celtic music for The Wall Street Journal and Irish Echo newspapers as well as for Irish Music magazine. He has also written the liner notes for 34 albums, including one nominated for a Grammy in 1998, and contributed six essays to "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music," a 478-page reference work co-published by Cork University and New York University presses.