The ’Cap’ of Kevin Burke’s Solo Canon: Fiddler’s Second Solo Recording Rank
November 10, 2008
The ’Cap’ of Kevin Burke’s Solo Canon: Fiddler’s Second Solo Recording Ranks FirstCEOL
- By Earle Hitchner
What do the Beatles’s "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" in 1967 and Irish traditional fiddler Kevin Burke’s "If the Cap Fits" in 1978 have in common?
The first partially influenced the second.
Before I explain why, I want to expose, once and for all, a dirty little secret about the impact of the Bothy Band, of which Burke was a member, on Irish traditional music from the middle to late 1970s. It was rock-and-roll. A key, usually overlooked ingredient in the enormously influential sound of the Bothy Band was its rhythm, and that came from Donal Lunny on bouzouki and guitar and Micheal O Domhnaill on guitar.
I can hear all the trad-heads and purists out there screaming "sacrilege" and "heresy." But in a recent interview I did with Lunny, now residing in Japan, he admitted that rock-and-roll shaped his attitude and approach to the Irish traditional music performed by the Bothy Band. Besides, how could an Irish acoustic trad band be heard or stand out amid the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and other rock groups then dominating popular music? And what would be different or distinctive about the Bothy Band in the wake of previous Irish traditional ensembles?
Again the answer is rhythm, affecting choice and order of tunes, attack, energy, embellishment and improvisation, instrumental layering and density, and overall imaginative execution and sonic power. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Burke, Lunny, Micheal and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, Matt Molloy, Paddy Keenan, and Tommy Peoples (Burke’s predecessor on fiddle) were among the best Irish traditional performers on the planet and, as a sextet, constituted an Irish traditional supergroup at a time when that term was used far more judiciously and begrudgingly than today. And I do mean "begrudgingly": many older, hard-core Irish traditional musicians still scoff at claims for Bothy Band ascendancy and strength within the close-knit trad community back then.
By 1978, the year "If the Cap Fits" was released on Dublin’s Mulligan Records, Kevin Burke had already recorded with the Glenside Ceili Band and Christy Moore, issued his "Sweeney’s Dream" solo debut in America, and made two studio albums with the Bothy Band in Ireland. But Burke’s musical interests weren’t bound by Irish trad alone. In his note on the back cover of the original "If the Cap Fits" LP, he mentions "negro bluesmen," and it was not a facile reference. On BBC radio in London, he listened to the blues of such musicians as Robert Johnson, Son House, and Roosevelt Sykes, and he was also smitten by the slide and bottleneck guitar playing of Ry Cooder, with whom he guested on Arlo Guthrie’s "Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys" album in 1973.
Like Lunny, Burke additionally listened to rock. "When I first listened to ’Sgt. Pepper’s,’ I was impressed by how the Beatles made many of their songs flow into each other without coming to a dead stop," he told me. "I thought I’d try something like that for my solo album. So there’s a glimmer of ’Sgt. Pepper’s’ influence on that long set."
The "long set" is an 11-tune, 16-minute medley concluding "If the Cap Fits," which marks its 30th anniversary with a special new remastered Compass edition CD that features a lengthy new essay by me. (At Burke’s request, I omitted the Beatles’ influence in my CD essay, but I feel no such constriction here in "Ceol.") Throughout the unbroken flow of his fiddling, he gets a little help from his friends, including Gerry O’Beirne on slide guitar, who enter and leave in a manner akin to a real session, which was the point of this long set for Burke. It is a jaw-dropping track combining skill, invention, and stamina in equally potent portions.
I am just as impressed by Burke’s achievement on the other seven, far shorter tracks (none is longer than 4:22). Each of them is an exquisitely conceived and chiseled performance, capturing the fiddler at the apex of his trademark silkiness but also injected with Sligo-style yeastiness.
Produced by Donal Lunny, "If the Cap Fits" has never sounded cleaner, crisper, or more stirring than this new Compass remastering from the original quarter-inch analog tapes in 1978. Thirty years later, it remains a monumental accomplishment and the solo summit of Kevin Burke’s recording career so far. It is a must addition to any reputable home library of Irish traditional music.
[Published on November 5, 2008, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City. Copyright (c) Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]
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