“A lot of people think Irish music is wistful and melancholy. That’s one side of it, but there’s also a great, rough, resilient spirit in the music, an element of joy underlying even the most plaintive melody. I grew up listening to musicians with that spirit and I value it. So much in music today makes people passive, bored and boring: three things I never want to be.”
Kevin Burke needn’t worry. His sparkling, lyrical fiddle playing has earned him a reputation as one of the finest, most influential players in music today. From The Bothy Band to Patrick Street, he has defined Irish fiddling for a generation. His work with artists as disparate as Kate Bush, Arlo Guthrie and Christy Moore has given him an audience that not only spans continents, it defies attempts at categorization. Described as “one of the greatest Celtic fiddlers alive” by The New York Times, Burke was recognized with a National Heritage Fellowship Award by the National Endowment For the Arts in 2002, this country’s highest honor in the traditional arts. In 2005, he was named one of Irish America’s Top 100 by Irish America Magazine.
Born and raised in London, England, Burke picked up his first fiddle at age eight when his parents decided music studies were in order. “To this day I have no idea why they chose the fiddle, except that it’s popular in County Sligo, where the family comes from and where we spent our vacations,” he laughs. “For the next five years or so, I dutifully diddled around on it. Then I discovered Irish music. Suddenly I was hooked. I spent my teens wandering into pubs, waiting for a chance to sit in with the musicians.”
London in the 1960s was a vibrant musical scene for the Irish; emigrants could be heard playing the styles of Kerry, Sligo, Galway, Limerick and Clare. And Burke was listening. Though he counts such masters of the Sligo style as Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran and Tom McGowan as primary influences, he also points to fiddlers Bobby Casey (County Clare) and Brendan McGlinchey (Ulster), and to a wealth of Irish musicians on the London scene as important in his development. “I had access to it all, whereas if I’d been living in Ireland, I might not have been so lucky.”
Good fortune aside, Kevin’s undeniable talents brought him to the attention of Arlo Guthrie in 1972, when he was invited to the States to play on Guthrie’s Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys. Shortly after, Christy Moore, the great Irish singer/songwriter, asked Burke to Ireland to play in his new band. He stayed with Moore two years before joining what would become one of the most influential Irish groups of all time, The Bothy Band.
Hailed as “the Yardbirds of Irish music,” the Bothy Band boasted some of the finest musicians in all of Ireland, including Matt Molloy (Chieftains), Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and Tríona Ní Domhnaill (Nightnoise), Dónal Lunny (Planxty) and uillean piper Paddy Keenan. Burke initially joined the band as a temporary replacement for fiddler Tommy Peoples, but his role soon become permanent. His elegant, impassioned fiddling was a cornerstone of the band’s legendary sound from 1976 until 1979.
During their years in the Bothy Band together, Burke and guitarist Míchéal O’Domhnaill discovered a rare musical rapport. When the band parted ways, the two men toured Europe and recorded a groundbreaking album, Promenade, which was awarded the “Grand Prix du Disque” at the 1980 Montreux Jazz Festival. They followed with Portland, named for the Oregon city where Burke has long resided.
In 1986, Burke joined an all-star cast of Irish musicians that included Andy Irvine and Jackie Daly for a tour that evolved into the legendary quartet Patrick Street. With Ged Foley on guitar and nine albums to their name, Patrick Street is one of the most powerful traditional groups in Irish music. Celtic Fiddle Festival is Kevin’s other current group, a dazzling pan-Celtic ensemble that he founded in 1993 with legendary Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham and Brittany’s Christian Lemaître. After Cunningham’s untimely passing in 2003, the young fiddler Andre Brunet from Quebeçois group La Bottine Souriante came on board, and the Fiddles released their fourth CD, Play On (2005, Green Linnet), dedicated to Johnny.
As if that weren’t enough, Kevin toured and recorded with bluegrass star Tim O’Brien and his acclaimed Irish-American group, The Crossing in 2001. Kevin also formed the group Open House during the 1990s, a critically-acclaimed project with American musicians Paul Kotapish, Mark Graham and dancer Sandy Silva. Open House released three CDs that explored music from all corners of the world.
Over the years, Burke has recorded a number of acclaimed solo albums in addition to those mentioned before, including his debut Sweeney’s Dream and If the Cap Fits. In Concert, which came out in 1999 on Green Linnet, was Burke’s first solo release in15 years, and features his inimitable In Concert fiddling on music drawn from throughout his remarkable career. The album was co-produced by noted Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, who also guests on three tracks.
“There are thousands of old tunes, good ones that haven’t been played in years,” concludes Burke. “When I find something I love, I play it. And when I find something I like, I bend it out of shape until I love it. Good music is good music. It should be heard.”