Frankie Gavin and Catherine McHugh performing at Boston College's Gaelic Roots series November 2. Photo by Sean Smith
It wasn’t actually planned that way, but last month in the space of a week, Boston College’s Gaelic Roots series hosted two of the most celebrated Irish fiddle players of the past five decades. On Nov. 2, Frankie Gavin and accompanist Catherine McHugh performed in BC’s Connolly House, and then on Nov. 9, Kevin Burke played solo in the very same place.
Gavin’s appearance had been postponed twice from earlier in the fall due to visa-related problems, so apply an asterisk if need be. Nonetheless, the confluence of concerts underscored yet again the bountiful richness of Greater Boston’s Irish/Celtic scene, where seemingly every day of a given week offers opportunities to watch celebrated performers hold forth.
Both Gavin and Burke have resumés that include some of the foundational bands of the modern Irish music revival and a bevy of other memorable collaborations and projects. Gavin, who famously holds the Guinness Book of World Records honor as “the world’s fastest fiddle player,” co-founded De Dannan and he has played and recorded with Stéphane Grappelli, Andy Irvine, Yehudi Menuhin, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis Costello, among others. He has also explored different routes Irish traditional music has taken down through time, notably in 1920s America, hence his founding of the Roaring Twenties Irish Orchestra.
Kevin Burke during his Gaelic Roots concert on November 9 in BC's Connolly House. Photo by Sean Smith
Burke was a member of the Bothy Band – he also formed a longstanding partnership with the group’s guitarist Mícheál Ó Domhnaill – had stints with Patrick Street, the Celtic Fiddle Festival and Open House, and has worked with accordionist Jackie Daly and film composer Cal Scott. Winner of a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, Burke founded his own record company, Loftus Music; one of the company’s releases, “Sligo Made,” features Burke and other musicians influenced by the Sligo tradition. He recently launched a new video series, “Music from an Irish Cottage,” with assorted guests.
The Gaelic Roots events- organized by the series' intrepid director, Sheila Falls- provided an occasion to catch up with the two icons, who chatted for several minutes in the cozy Connolly House library prior to their respective shows.
Frankie Gavin gives the very strong impression of a man who’s making up for lost time.
Like so many musicians, he saw a lot of plans waylaid by the pandemic. But in early 2022, just as some degree of normalcy began to emerge, Gavin was diagnosed with stage 3 esophageal cancer, which necessitated challenging and quite expensive treatment. A GoFundMe page set up by his son Julian brought forth a tremendous response from friends and fans, however, and he was able to get the surgery. Within months, Gavin was back playing music.
“I’m feeling absolutely great, and my scans are clear,” he declares. “Really just putting it all in the past.”
One bit of unfinished business that was particularly satisfying for Gavin to settle was to perform the symphonic suite that he and pianist Carl Hession composed in honor of Grace Kelly, the daughter of Irish immigrants who became a movie star, then Princess of Monaco and a worldwide activist for children’s rights. The work had been scheduled to premiere in Monaco in early 2020 with Grace’s son Prince Albert – an Irish fiddle aficionado and friend of Gavin – in attendance, but the prince became ill with Covid.
The premiere finally took place in September 2022, with Gavin and fiddler Ciara O’Brien playing with the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra; De Dannan opened the show, and Prince Albert was able to attend.
“We’re hoping to present the suite in the US – preferably in Philadelphia, which was Grace’s hometown,” says Gavin.
Gavin also is happy to be out touring “Port Éireann,” the album he and McHugh released at the beginning of 2022, recorded during the lockdown (“It was nice to be able to achieve something,” says Gavin). The 18 tracks are full of classic fiddle tunes, such as “Lord McDonald’s,” “Ballinasloe Fair,” “The Gold Ring,” “Sligo Maid” and “Sailor on the Rock.” There’s also a Gavin original, “The Burren Barndance,” and a nod to the late accordionist Joe Burke with the jig “Currants for Cakes and Raisins for Everything,” written by Burke’s wife Ann Conroy Burke.
The duo’s performance at BC included many of the tunes and sets from “Port Éireann,” and showed that Gavin hasn’t lost a thing: The speed is still there, as is his mastery of ornamentation and variation, and an unapologetic penchant for flair and showmanship to keep everyone on their toes. Oh, and he also served a reminder that he plays one mean flute, too. McHugh, who has toured with Cherish the Ladies, was by no means overmatched by Gavin, nor did her piano accompaniment rein in his fiddling.
“We met through different music circles and just found our playing was very compatible,” says Gavin. “Catherine’s a great fiddle player herself, so she knows fiddle music inside and out, and understands the way accompaniment can work. Instead of the ‘oom-chuck, oom-chuck’ approach, she colors in the picture of the music very well.” (McHugh, asked about her fiddling, demurs with a smile: “That’s just a rumor”)
Deciding to skip an intermission, Gavin and McHugh went through a goodly number of sets, at least 15 or more. But Gavin also took some time to demonstrate his stage patter, describing in hilarious detail the series of mishaps and disasters that almost ruined this latest attempt at getting to the US – he made it, only to discover he’d left his wallet back home. Later on in the evening, he introduced a medley as “three reels from the skip,” explaining that he’d learned the tunes from a cassette tape that had almost wound up in a landfill.
Any event or conversation with Gavin invariably brings up De Dannan – the official band name now is “Frankie Gavin and De Dannan” – which recently unveiled a new line-up that, along with Gavin, McHugh, and Kaitlin Cullen-Verhauz (vocals, cello) now includes Ian Kinsella (guitar) and Diarmuid Ó Meachair (melodeon).
De Dannan was a revelation right from the start, with its blistering tempos on instrumental sets, solid traditional repertoire and tight ensemble playing that had at its core Gavin’s fiddle and the inimitable accompaniment of Alec Finn on six-string bouzouki, mixing chords, melody, counter melody, and other complementary notes. Those qualities, in turn, were enhanced by their arrangements, often transitioning between full-band-on-hand and smaller combinations.
One of the best examples is the opening track of their “Selected Jigs, Reels and Songs” album, with Finn playing swift arpeggios as Gavin roars into “Tom Billy’s Jig,” followed by a transition into “Ryan’s Jig” with Charlie Piggott’s tenor banjo atop not one but two bouzoukis, one of which (played by Johnny Moynihan) contributes a mesmerizingly bassy drone; and then, Gavin seamlessly segues into the first of two reels, and it’s during this juncture that we make the acquaintance of Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, first playing rhythmic bones and then his signature bodhran on the pulsating “Flowers of Red Hill” (in the course of which Gavin switches between octaves) that winds things up.
“I just think our sound was unique from the word ‘go,’” says Gavin. “Fiddle, banjo, bodhran, accordion, and then there was Alec’s bouzouki – his style just gave it a unique blend. It was all so organic, and so grand to have that come together the way it did.” (Finn died in 2018.)
As De Dannan devotees know, the band has never been one for straitjacketing itself by expectations based on previous works. So, while they might have some of the Irish music revival’s finest vocalists in their ranks at one time or another – Moynihan, Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell, Mary Black, Tommy Fleming – they could also invite singers from the tradition, Sean Ó Conaire and Tom Pháidín Tom, to record with them, as was the case on the “Mist Covered Mountain” album. And even as they explore the breadth of Irish tradition, they also do instrumental covers of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (renamed “Hibernian Rhapsody”) – not to mention a Bach number – or evoke 1920s Irish-American music as the “De Danann All Stars” on “The Star Spangled Molly.”
Gavin, for his part, has always relished these excursions into the 1920s. He’s more than happy to rhapsodize about the Flanagan Brothers, Dan Sullivan’s Shamrock Band, James Morrison, and other denizens of those days. Whatever the other sources of inspiration he’s drawn on for his music through the years, it’s clear Gavin is sure of his roots.
“The Irish music of that era was such a huge influence for me – I’ve always felt like I should’ve lived back then. You listen to the recordings of that time, and there was such great energy, and great accuracy in the way it was played.
“The music just really captured the imagination of the public, and more importantly, it really lifted hearts. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. In fact, if anyone asks me for advice, I say ‘Just listen to the old players.’”
‘It was all just tremendous’
There have been many memorable stays in the Boston area for Kevin Burke, including concerts at the Somerville Theater, Sanders Theater and, of course, The Burren, where he played the week following his performance at Gaelic Roots.
And then there was “a less salubrious occasion,” as Burke puts it, in 1980 at a venue he prefers not to name when the organizer (whose name he also prefers to keep anonymous) tried to promote the show as a performance by the Bothy Band.
Problem was that the evening’s roster included only Burke, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and accordionist Máirtín O'Connor. “Sure, Mícheál and I had been in the band, but not Máirtín. It wasn’t even close. We told the guy there was just no way, and he got increasingly unhappy about it. But we didn’t change our minds.”
The larger issue with labeling the trio as the Bothy Band was that, by then, the Bothy Band had broken up. There had never been a formal announcement about it, exactly, but the group had played its last gig the previous year, at the 1979 Ballisodare Festival.
“Well, actually,” says Burke, a grin forming, “it’s more accurate to say that was the Bothy Band’s last concert of the 1970s.”
Yes, the Band is back.
Right around the time Burke’s recent US tour was underway, Celtic Connections in Scotland announced there will be a Bothy Band reunion concert at its festival in January. Burke will join Donal Lunny, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, Matt Molloy, Paddy Keenan, and Paddy Glackin, the group’s original fiddler who left before it formally started up, and was succeeded by Tommy Peoples –yes, Burke was actually the third Bothy fiddler – along with special guest guitarist Sean Óg Graham at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. (Ó Domhnaill died in 2006, Peoples in 2018.)
The announcement wasn’t a complete surprise, since photos of the Bothies and Graham had surfaced on social media a few weeks earlier when the group gathered for a special performance that is part of a forthcoming documentary about the band.
“It was all just tremendous,” says Burke, adding that that performance “has spawned lots of offers.” Concerts in Switzerland and Brittany also are planned thus far during 2024.
Any year that includes a reintroduction to the Bothy Band holds promise – even if it’s an election year. Part of what made the Bothies so remarkable was the group’s fairly brief existence, about five years, which they nonetheless packed with critically and publicly acclaimed work, including three studio albums and one live recording. A powerhouse of a melody trio – Burke’s fiddle, Keenan’s pipes/whistle, Molly’s flute/whistle – aligned perfectly with an equally dynamic rhythm trinity – Lunny’s bouzouki/bodhran, Ó Domhnaill’s guitar, Ní Dhomhnaill’s keyboards.
The group’s arrangements were one master stroke after another, from the first album’s opening medley with the rousing guitar and bouzouki intro to “The Kesh Jig,” to the full-throttle majesty of “The Hag at the Churn” (including Burke’s complementary fiddle part), to the interlaced exquisiteness for “The Butterfly.” Not to be overlooked, of course, were the vocals of siblings Ó Domhnaill and Ní Dhomhnaill (Lunny’s fine harmony singing also deserves praise), especially on the songs in Gaelic, like “Tiochfaid An Samhradh”; it’s worth remembering that Gaelic singing with band accompaniment was still a pretty new thing back then.
Pleased as he is with the Bothy Band Mk. II, Burke has been engrossed in another project quite close to his heart, and literally, his home – a video series, “Music from an Irish Cottage.” The premise is straightforward: Burke invites two musicians to join him at his cottage in Mayo (his full-time residence is still Portland, Ore., where he has lived for more than 30 years), where they play and discuss tunes but also talk about friends and acquaintances and share anecdotes. Guests have included Sharon Shannon, Sean Smyth, Josephine Marsh, Nuala Kennedy, and Seamie O’Dowd.
“I’d bought the cottage just before the pandemic, and I was thinking how I’d spent a lot of time in a place like this,” says Burke. “As a teenager, I often went around without my parents to this or that cottage, hoping the musicians there wouldn’t kick me out. Remember, back then there wasn’t a lot of recorded Irish music, so you really had to go out and find people who played it if you wanted to learn. I remember how much I enjoyed the whole experience: It wasn’t just listening to or playing the music, it was the small talk, the gossip, the conversations about other musicians.
“People don’t learn music like that anymore. The interactions that go on between the tunes mean a lot, but people who only see Irish music performed on a stage or via TV or film productions don’t get that, and so they’re missing out on an important element of Irish music. I thought it would be nice to recreate that kind of evening, where musicians sit around and talk about music and, well, just about anything.”
It's a tight fit in the cabin, so instead of having a swarm of guests, Burke has used what he calls “the Noah’s Ark method – two by two” for each episode. Of course, the space is all the more tighter because of the filming/audio crew, but Burke compliments them “for doing their job, which was to be invisible.”
Sometimes, he notes, guests have felt a bit self-conscious, even intimidated, by the idea of being casual and spontaneous in a setting that makes such a thing difficult. But Burke has been resolute in having the episodes be unscripted and unrehearsed: “If somebody says, ‘Can I just warm up and practice for five or 10 minutes?’ I’ll say, ‘Well, that’s what we’re going to be filming, then.’ The whole point is, this isn’t a ‘show’ – it’s what we get up to when no one is watching.
“Mister Scorsese,” he adds, “has nothing to worry about.”
At his BC concert, Burke essentially turned Connolly House into his cabin and invited the audience to be his guests – and, of course, to buy one of his CDs. “I’m offering a special deal: If you don’t like my CD, send it back to me,” he said, “and I’ll send you a CD that I don’t like.” For part of the evening, he narrated a musical tour across parts of Ireland, noting some of the outstanding fiddlers like Michael Coleman (from Burke’s native Sligo), Bobby Casey (Clare) and Lucy Farr (Galway), and playing tunes associated with them and in the style of their particular region.
But Burke is one well-traveled fellow when it comes to music and geography, as he demonstrated in the second half, when he performed a waltz by Cal Scott, a Quebecois set that included “Mouth of the Tobique,” “Evening Prayer Blues” by bluegrass king Bill Monroe, and even Simon Jeffe’s “Tune for a Found Harmonium,” a quirky chameleon of a composition that had its pop culture moment as part of the soundtrack for the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” (“It’s not a traditional tune, and it’s not an Irish tune,” said Burke. “It’s barely a tune”). For the grand finale, however, he returned to his Sligo roots, playing two stalwart reels popularized by Michael Coleman, “Bonnie Kate” and “Jenny’s Chickens.”
While Burke was in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, that evening, he seemed just as at home as if he were some 3,000 miles east, in that little Mayo cottage.