Kevin Burke is known far and wide in Irish music circles as a quintessential Sligo fiddler.
He was born in London 62 years ago, but his parents were Irish immigrants from Sligo, and it’s the rhythms of that Atlantic-washed county in the West of Ireland that shape his playing.
“Many great fiddlers come from Sligo,” he said, last week from his home in Portland, Oregon, and they have a distinctive sound.
“If you travel north to south in the West of Ireland, you’ll find the music brisker and faster in the North,” he said, “and slower in the South.”
The famed fiddler Martin Hayes, just for instance, who hails from Clare in the Southwest, “takes long, swooping strokes. It’s quite ornamented.”
Sligo is smack in between North and South, and its fiddlers marry southern Hayes-style ornamentation with northern-style briskness, Burke said — himself included.
Tucsonans can tease out the stylistic influences in Burke’s playing when he gives a concert at Plaza Palomino this Thursday night with John Carty. A master of banjo, flute and fiddle, Carty is another English-born child of Sligo immigrants. The two musicians will likely each do a solo set and then play together, Burke said.
Both men are instrumentalists, and — unusually for an Irish band — they’re not accompanied by a singer.
“I’m not a singer,” Burke says with a laugh, but “I’ll try to sing, one semi-vocal.”
His one song, never recorded, “London Town,” honors generations of Irish immigrants who moved to England to find work.
“It’s about people like my parents and John’s parents,” he said, “who left the West of Ireland and brought their music with them.”
The Burke family home in London was endlessly filled with visiting Sligo musicians, and the usual nightly entertainment was live Irish airs, reels and jibs played live in the living room.
“I was 8 or 9 or 10 before I realized that wasn’t the way in every house. It was a shock to learn my schoolmates didn’t sit around listening to music at night.”
Young Kevin studied classical violin with a woman up the street, and kept right on playing but “I was brought up with the idea that music wasn’t a job.” After studying business at a college, he did a stint working on the Stock Exchange.
“Music was definitely getting in the way of my job,” he said, until the day he realized “my regular job was getting in the way of music.”
He began performing Irish music in clubs in England and Ireland; in 1972, in Ireland by chance he met Arlo Guthrie. Guthrie liked what he heard, and “I went back with him and recorded with people in LA,” contributing to the Guthrie album Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys.
“I saw what he and his friends were doing with American traditional music. I thought, `I could do that in Ireland.’”
The old music was fading in much of Ireland by then, especially in the urbanized eastern counties a short hop from England. But the West of Ireland — where Burke had spent childhood summers “putting down spuds and cutting turf” on his grandparents’ farm — “held onto its music and dance longer.”
Burke returned to his parents’ homeland and threw himself back into traditional music. Most importantly, he joined The Bothy Band, a now legendary group that helped jump-start the Celtic revival.
When the Bothy Band went bust, Burke toured and recorded with Míchéal O’Domhnaill, the former Bothy guitarist. The O’Domhnaill-Burke duo performed twice in Tucson in the 1980s; Burke has also played the Old Pueblo with Patrick Street and with The Celtic Fiddle Festival (with Johnny Cunningham). More recently he’s been performing with the Irish-American band Open House. This week’s Tucson concert marks the debut of his duo with Carty.
Burke has lived in Portland for some 30 years, yet he still speaks in a West of Ireland lilt, diluted a tad by the Queen’s English.
His speech is “bipolar and bipartisan,” he jokes. “It’s a bit of both.”
But Oregon reminds him of his ancestral home.
“I’m looking out the window right now,” he said. “It’s green, gray and wet. Exactly like Ireland.”
Kevin Burke and John Carty Irish Music Concert
7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 25. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Plaza Palomino, 2970 N. Swan Road at Fort Lowell, Suite 147
$23 at the door; advance tickets $20 general and $18 seniors at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave., the Folk Shop, 2525 N. Campbell Ave., and at www.inconcerttucson.com and 981-1475
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