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CD Review Bumpy first solo flight

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

SWEENEY’S DREAM, by Kevin Burke. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW CD 40485.

Not everything old turns classic, and objets d’art seen in the side-view mirror of time don’t always appear bigger than they are. The Smithsonian Folkways CD reissue of "Sweeney’s Dream," London-born Irish fiddler Kevin Burke’s solo debut, proves both points.

Burke was 22 when he recorded the album for Moses Asch’s Folkways label in 1972, and this second CD reissue (Ossian, a Cork-based label, released a CD in 1989) can’t mask how rough the album was the first time around. The polish of Burke’s playing on subsequent solo recordings remains in relatively short supply here, and the often plodding, American old-time accompaniment of five-string banjo, mandolin, guitar, and autoharp doesn’t help.

Still, there are a few tracks to savor from Burke, then heavily steeped in the highly rhythmic style of Sligo. He executes some teasing jumps from low to high register in "Bonnie Kate/Jennie’s Chickens," two reels played as a pair since legendary Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman recorded them that way in 1934. "The Humours of Lissadell/Sweeney’s Dream," learned from another Sligo fiddling master, Paddy Killoran, also display Burke’s undeniable talent with a bow, though his performance is hampered by the spiritless guitar backup of Alan Podber.

Two tracks where the rhythm of America’s old-time music enhances more than encumbers are "The Bunch of Keys/The Girl That Broke My Heart" and "The Mason’s Apron/Laington’s Reel." The frailing banjo of Henry Sapoznik offers a skewed complement to Burke’s fiddle lead, and the mix of their instruments suggests how immigrant Irish and Scottish music shaped so-called "hillbilly" music in America’s rural South.

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Burke’s own technique isn’t exclusive to Sligo, either. The more melodic, fluid style of County Clare can be detected in "The College Groves," where he often glides between notes with the grace of an Olympic ice skater.

The CD comes with a 22-page booklet of original, revised, and new liner notes and tune titles. But what’s mystifying about the repackage is how Smithsonian Folkways missed or made errors after correcting others. For example: the album was recorded not at Fordham University in the Bronx but at New York University’s erstwhile heights campus in the Bronx; it was not "originally issued by Meadowlands Records" but Folkways, and "If the Cap Fits" was Burke’s second, not first, solo recording.

The back catalog of any artist as accomplished as Kevin Burke should be made more available, so this domestic reissue of "Sweeney’s Dream" on CD is to be applauded. But conservatorship alone can’t make the album more than what it was and is, a curio drawn from the fledgling professional period of a fiddler whose reputation would soon soar on the thermal of the Bothy Band.

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