Meet Kevin Burke, Portland's Giant of Traditional Irish Music

For nearly 40 years, the fiddle player has called the Rose City home.

By Stephen Phillips February 20, 2017 Published in the March 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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The fiddle beside the fruit bowl in Kevin Burke’s Northeast Portland home seems posed for a still life, but it’s a working instrument. “I play when I’m waiting for the kettle to boil,” says Burke, 66, in an accent flavored by London, Dublin, and 37 years in Portland.

Burke’s career, spanning stints with Irish folk groups the Bothy Band and Patrick Street, collaborations with a pantheon of Irish traditional music greats, and a slew of revered albums, suggests he’s spent more time with the fiddle in hand than not. Growing up the son of Irish immigrants in London he regularly logged four or five hours daily. At 8, he began classical violin lessons, but evenings and weekends he listened to his parents’ records of Irish traditional music and joined “sessions” in their friends’ homes and pubs, acquiring the vernacular of Irish fiddle-playing.

By 1976, living in Dublin and a fixture in the band of Irish folk music legend Christy Moore, he was tapped to join the Bothy Band, a pioneer in arranging rambunctious traditional Irish dance tunes for modern audiences. “We weren’t trying to elevate the music into the lofty classical world; we were trying to bring it from the farmhouse, where it was performed, to the street.”

Burke was at the heart of the Irish folk scene, but a seed planted earlier by a chance encounter with a fabled singer-songwriter and the ripple effects from the 1979 Iranian Revolution conspired to steer him far from Irish music’s beaten path. 

In 1972, sojourning in America at the behest of Arlo Guthrie, Burke found himself playing alongside Ry Cooder, among others. Along the way, he met Hoyt Axton, who penned hits including Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” “He said, ‘Kevin, you should go to Oregon,’” Burke recalls, “‘You’d like Oregon; Oregonians would like you.’”

Seven years later, Portland was where Burke’s US tour, with fellow Bothy Band member Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, ran out of gas. Literally. The fall of the Shah of Iran had crimped oil supplies; gas was rationed. “We were to be here one night but stayed five.” He left, came back, and stayed, smitten by the “mountains, rivers, and trees.” Eventually, he’d discover another appeal: anonymity. “People three doors away don’t have a clue what I do and, if they did, wouldn’t care. I like that.”

And his career in traditional Irish music barely skipped a beat. Burke and Ó Domhnaill’s jamming in their Portland apartment yielded the acclaimed 1982 album Portland. Later, Burke cofounded Irish music “supergroup” Patrick Street. Last year, he was named Traditional Musician of the Year by the Irish TV channel TG4.

Today, Burke’s on the road four months a year. Still, he’s a presence on the local scene. Last fall he opened for Portland roots band Foghorn Stringband at the Doug Fir. “Kevin controlled the room,” recalls Foghorn mandolinist and vocalist Caleb Klauder. “People were mesmerized.”

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