As a young geologist my first job was in the far west of New South Wales in outback Australia at a place called Cobar. It was a small mining town of 5,000 in the middle of nowhere. A highlight was a regular three hour drive to Dubbo for a shopping trip. Sydney was 8 hours away. This was 1979 and I was already heavily into the fiddle so as often as I could I would drive down to Sydney and head straight to Folkways Record Shop in Paddington. There I would check the latest imports from Ireland and buy most of them on spec. This is how I discovered Kevin Burke. And right through the 80’s he was my inspiration. From the solo If the Cap Fits to Promenade and Portland recorded with Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and then the collaborations with Jacky Daly and Andy Irvine and Patrick Street.
Fast forward to February 2016 and I am sitting in the back bar of Lucas Bar in Ennis. I have never been here before and the place is not renowned for music. Indeed this is a first for the Pub. A small but enthusiastic crowd had gathered to hear Kevin play. Solo. No distractions. Just the clear clean sound of a fiddler on his own. I looked around. There were many well-known fiddlers in the room and they treated the master with absolute respect and reverent silence. It was hard to believe that nearly forty years after discovering him I was hearing him live for the first time.
Burke’s playing has both breadth and depth. His interpretation of traditional Irish music is rooted in the Sligo tradition but has absorbed so many influences from his days in London and the US. Personally I love the fiddle on its own. Nothing wrong with ensemble playing and his many collaborations are testament to his skill at that but a masterful player such as Burke can bring out the internal rhythm of the tunes without the need for other instruments or backing. He displayed this virtuosity with over 90 minutes of reels, polkas, slides, jigs and airs. And we also got some bluegrass, some Yiddish music (via Sweden), some Quebecois and some musette.
It was a captivating and rewarding performance. The tunes were linked together with some delightful stories and restrained banter and perhaps the biggest cheer was reserved for his song about his days in London. There were many highlights for me though. An outstanding rendition of Maudabawn Chapel, the haunting Frielach, and the wildness of the Boys of Malin and Stenson’s reels stand out.
Kevin is in Ireland to receive the Gradam Ceoil for 2016, the Irish Musician of the Year award from TG4. What a worthy recipient, having given us four decades of inspirational fiddle music. Thanks.