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Fiddler has made a good life from jiggin' 'n' giggin'

Kevin Burke brings the Emerald Isle's music to Portland


by: COURTESY OF KEVIN BURKE - Kevin Burke started to forge his world-class Irish fiddle playing in the 1960s, and he soon moved to Portland on the advice of late songwriter Hoyt Axton.Irish fiddler Kevin Burke recalls meeting Paul Butterfield, the famous blues harmonica player whose band helped Bob Dylan go electric in 1965.

“I remembered I played a rather minor slow jig for Paul,” Burke says. “He was like, ‘What’s that?! It must be the Irish blues!’ ”

In a way, Butterfield was onto something. Then again, Burke is used to folks not knowing all that much about Irish music. However, if they do know something, it’s because Irish music has exploded in popularity since Burke began playing it professionally in the 1960s — and observers would contend he’s one of the reasons.

Since the 1960s, Burke has steadily plied his trade as one of the best traditional fiddlers on the planet, playing in humble pubs and gilded concert halls. He has played with the noted Irish songwriter Christy Moore in one outfit and was a member of the seminal Irish roots group the Bothy Band. He also has lent his talents to such groups as Patrick Street, The Crossing and Celtic Fiddle Festival. And he’s received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, our country’s highest honor for excellence in folk and traditional arts.

Yet despite his roots in Ireland and England, it’s Portland that the Oregon Music Hall of Fame member has called home for three decades. He moved here on the advice of the late songwriter Hoyt Axton, who repeatedly told him he’d love it here.

“I think the weather is perfect,” Burke says.

“I like the four different seasons — and none of them life-threatening, even the rain,” he adds with a chuckle.

Burke and his pal, guitarist Cal Scott, will perform at 7:30 p.m. St. Patrick’s Day, Sunday, March 17, in the Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 N.E. Alberta St. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door, and parents or guardians must accompany minors. For more information, visit albertarosetheater.com or call 503-719-6055.

London town

Burke grew up in Southeast London, UK, the son of a County Sligo couple from Ireland. His extended family in Ireland often took care of him when he was growing up, and exposed him to Irish music at an early age.

“My mother’s uncle was a great fiddle player,” he says, adding other relatives played as well. However, he credits a classical music teacher his parents hired, Jessie Christopherson, for giving him the tools that shaped his distinctive sweet tone.

“I can still remember her shrieking instructions at me, ‘Up bow!’ ‘Sharper!’ and so on” — but behind her strict manner was someone who genuinely loved music.”

Meanwhile, from the Irish players, Burke learned to treat the printed page as a guide and to add grace notes and triplets “more or less when I felt like it.

“They also had a list of terms that I hadn’t heard in my violin classes — shakes, rolls, crans.”

A “cran,” for example, is “like a rattlin’ sound,” Burke says.

“I do it by hitting the strings quite lightly but fast with my fingers.”

He credits his tone to his method, which involves using “smoother, longer strokes with the bow.”

From the older Irish musicians he also learned about “nyaah” which loosely translates as “soul.” Burke knew he was on his way to becoming a real player the day one of the older musicians told him he had it.

Meeting Arlo

In his teens, Burke played with a ceili, or party band, known as the Glenside, which jammed nearly every weekend at various dance halls around London. In 1966, his group took top honors at the All-Ireland Fleadh (festival).

At the same time, he started listening to such American singers as Dylan and Woody Guthrie, the latter whose son would change Burke’s life. One day, Burke walked into a pub in County Clare, where some American visitors were playing. Spotting his fiddle case, they asked Burke to play. Turns out one of the Yanks was none other than Arlo Guthrie.

“I had probably heard ‘Alice’s Restaurant,’ ” Burke says, recalling the younger Guthrie’s signature tune, but he says he didn’t know much else about the younger Guthrie.

However, some time later, Guthrie sent him a letter inviting him to his Massachusetts home. The folk singer then flew Burke out to Hollywood, where he recorded and/or played with Guthrie as well as such musicians as Ry Cooder. Burke also got to finally meet his idol, Dylan, in a bar when the singer came in during a break from filming the 1972 movie “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.”

“He seemed quite shy, and he wasn’t enjoying the attention,” Burke says, recalling the onlookers crowding Dylan. “He had a big broad-brimmed hat he kept pulling farther and farther over his face.”

Burke’s visit to Hollywood resulted in his inclusion on Guthrie’s 1973 album “The Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys.”

In Portland’s fair city

Along with fellow Bothy Band member, the late great Micheal O Domhnaill, Burke formed an act following the breakup of their group. The two gentlemen eventually settled in Portland, and even recorded an album named for the city.

In the late 1990s, Burke teamed up with soundtrack writer Cal Scott of The Trail Band, and the two men have worked together extensively since then. Their 2007 CD, “Across the Black River,” was called “... one of the top 12 world music releases of the year,” by The New York Times.

Scott adds that the duo also recorded 2010’s “Suite,” and notes that the two also plan to teach traditional music together in Maine this summer.

“He’s one of the very best Irish fiddlers that there is — he has a fantastic sense of time and an economy of movement with the way he uses his bow,” Scott says.

Burke is married now, with two teenage children, and has no plans to stop making “a joyful noise,” as he says. He says he knows many of his audience members don’t have the same background that makes him feel nostalgic for Ireland when he plays, so it’s his job to connect them to the Emerald Isle through his fiddle and bow.