Flatpicking Guitar Magazine September/October 2008

56
Davi d Bur ns & Sl i go Rags: The Whi skey Doesn’t Li e
CD Highlight
by Dan Miller
Sligo Rags is a Celtic band with a
bluegrass accent. The band`s guitar player
David Burns explains, 'Bluegrass was the
music form on which I cut my musical
teeth-so it holds a special place in my
heart. But when I saw how much more work
I could get playing Celtic music, I jumped
at the chance to incorporate my bluegrass
background into this novel (to me) area.
So I thought it would be fun to use country
and bluegrass rhythms to play Celtic tunes.¨
Burns had been a member of the southern
California-based bluegrass band High on
Grass for six or seven years during the early-
to-mid 1990s. The band played in various
local venues and performed at several
California bluegrass festivals. Then about
fve years ago David was asked to fll in on
guitar for a Celtic band whose guitar player
was going to be absent for a few months.
David was surprised at how many gigs the
Celtic band had on the books and how well
they got paid in comparison to his bluegrass
band. That got him thinking.
After his stint with the Celtic band was
over, David brought together a couple of his
friends-Michael Kelly on fddle/mandolin
and Gordon Rustvold on bass-and they
formed Sligo Rags in 2003. The group
started performing in small clubs at frst,
then as they gained experience and built
a repertoire, David said, 'I felt we had the
makings of a supergroup.¨ It turned out
that David was right. The band was voted
'Best Folk Band¨ at the Orange County
Music Awards in 2004 and 2005. To date
the band has recorded two studio CDs and
two live CDs and maintains a very active
performance schedule. When I frst heard
their newest CD The Whiskey Never Lies,
I thought to myself, 'These guys have it
all.great vocals, lots of energy, captivating
songs, well executed arrangements, and
tasteful solos.¨ By the second or third song,
I was ready to drive down to Los Angeles
and see these guys live. I wanted to be part
of the fun!
Born in Hempstead, New York in 1960,
David Burns grew up in Tustin, California,
which begs the question, 'How does a guy
from southern California get involved in
bluegrass and flatpicking?¨ It`s not the
typical musical career path for guitar players
in that region of the country. David said, 'I
was watching the Eagles on television back
in about 1975. They were playing Midnight
Flyer` and Bernie Leadon was playing the
banjo. I got the bug watching that and I
went in search of a banjo teacher.¨ As luck
would have it, David`s sister knew a kid
at school that could play the banjo. After
David took banjo lessons from his sister`s
friend, John Corzine, for about a year, John
told David, 'You have to move over to
the guitar because you`ve learned all that
I know on the banjo.¨ John proceeded to
show David how to play rhythm guitar with
bass runs, Carter style leads, and solos on a
few tunes like 'Blackberry Blossom¨ and
'Black Mountain Rag.¨
Since there were not a lot of people in
Orange County who were playing bluegrass,
David and John mostly spent time just
jamming together. David continued learning
new tunes by slowing down records and
then, after having the opportunity to watch
Tony Rice and Mike Marshall with the
David Grisman Quintet, David started
exploring the art of improvisation on the
guitar. He said, 'Those guys blew me
away. I thought, I have to learn how to
do that!`¨
In 1978 David graduated high school
and went to San Diego to attend college.
While there he became part of the strong San
Diego folk music scene. He joined various
'guitar groups¨ and performed 'Crosby,
Stills, and Nash-type things.¨ He also started
writing his own songs and began exploring
more complex guitar arrangements for
both fatpick and fngerstyle guitar. David
graduated from college in 1982 and
continued with his education in order to
earn his teaching credentials, which he
accomplished in 1984. David is currently
a high school psychology teacher in Long
Beach, California. For several years, from
the time he graduated college through
the time just after he earned his teaching
credentials, he did not play a lot of music.
However, by 1987 the bug hit him again.
In order to re-introduce himself to the
music scene, he recorded an instrumental
album of fngerstyle guitar tunes and began
performing solo gigs.
By 1990 David had formed the bluegrass
band High on Grass. Although his main
job in the band was that of banjo player, he
would bring out the guitar when the band
performed tunes like 'Beaumont Rag¨
or 'Red Haired Boy.¨ David explained
that the band lasted for six or seven years,
with changing personnel. Although they
played at local coffee houses and various
southern California festivals, it was tough
for a bluegrass band to get a lot of gigs in
southern California.
In 1998, David started performing
with another small group who played
'jazzgrass.¨ David said, 'I had wanted to
learn how to play jazz for years. A lot of
my friends were into jazz, but when I was
younger I was a little afraid of it. My friends
kept encouraging me and so I started playing
more jazz about ten to twelve years ago.¨
The band consisted of David on the guitar
and banjo, Luke Halpin on the mandolin
and fddle, and Paul Toth on the fretless
bass. They performed at coffee houses,
Borders books stores, Concerts in the Park
series, and other small venues. In 1998 they
recorded a CD titled Sophistry. The group
performed together from 1998 until 2000
when Luke made the move to Nashville.
Having tried his hand performing folk
music, solo guitar instrumental music,
bluegrass, and jazzgrass, David finally
hit the right formula for wider-ranging
popularity with Celticgrass and Sligo Rags.
The band stays busy all winter playing in
various pubs and then ramps it up even
Flatpicking Guitar Magazine September/October 2008
57
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more during the summer by adding summer
concerts and music festivals. David says that
the band goes over well at both bluegrass
festivals and Celtic events. David partly
attributes the band`s success to the fact that
their sound is different than most Celtic
bands and they also differ from standard
bluegrass bands and thus fans of both styles
of music are intrigued by the uniqueness of
the sound. After listening to the Sligo Rags
CDs, I`d say that fans at both types of events
respond in a positive way mostly because
it is simply great music that is superbly
executed.
David mentioned that many Celtic music
fans are drawn to his fatpicking simply
because they have never heard lead guitar
in the Celtic setting. The band`s approach to
performing Celtic tunes is also a bit different
than most Celtic bands. David explains, 'In
most Celtic bands the lead instruments play
in unison in order to create this big wall of
sound. We arrange the Celtic music as we
would bluegrass tunes. I play the rhythm
guitar exactly the way that I would in a
bluegrass band. Our bass player plays the
alternating root and ffth notes on the down
beats, like a bluegrass bass would do, but
he also provides a good back slap on the off
beats. We also take individual solos and do
far more improvising than the
typical Celtic player. Sometimes
we add a percussionist, but he
plays more African or Latin
style percussion as opposed to
the traditional Irish bohdran.¨
When asked if there were any
technical challenges in moving
from fatpicking bluegrass to
playing lead breaks on Celtic
tunes, David said, 'Picking in
jig time was diffcult. It took
some getting used to because
the alternating down-up pick
direction doesn`t work the same
way. On a fiddle tune in 4/4
time, you always begin a new
measure with a down stroke.
In jig time, that doesn`t happen,
so you have to adjust. My rule
with alternating pick direction
is that once you`ve learned
it, you can break it, but until
you`ve learned it you should
never break it.¨
Regarding any advice he
would give bluegrass players
who wanted to learn how to
play Celtic music, David said,
'I would suggest that anyone
Sligo Rags
Flatpicking Guitar Magazine September/October 2008
58
interested in learning Celtic music get
familiar with the old guard Celts like
the Chieftains and The Irish Rovers and
compare them with some of the crossover
artists (Fairport Convention comes to mind,
as does Tim O`Brien). Check out some
recent Celtic stuff that`s been done by such
bluegrass notables as Alison Brown, Bela
Fleck, and Ricky Skaggs, to name a few. It
will really open your eyes as to the possible
directions this music can be taken. Also,
get a book of reels and build a repertoire.
The more reels you learn, the better your
fatpicking will be.¨
Although Sligo Rags started performing
mostly traditional Celtic tunes when they
came together in 2003, they have gradually
added more original material. Their frst
CD The Night Before the Morning After,
released in 2005, was mostly traditional
material with no percussion and David
describes it as being 'lower key.¨ The
new CD The Whiskey Never Lies, released
about one year ago, includes more original
material, includes percussion, and 'has more
of an edge.¨
Listening to the CD, even though it is
not a live recording, I felt as if I was right
there in the pub with these guys. I found all
of the songs to be captivating. The vocal
leads and harmonies are very strong and
the instrumental work is engaging. I was
particularly drawn to the outstanding vocal
arrangements. The music is upbeat and fun
and thus makes the listening very enjoyable.
Some of the tunes lean more towards a Celtic
style, while others lean more in the direction
of bluegrass. There are some wonderfully
lively tunes and a few slower ballads that
highlight David`s fngerstyle guitar work.
While the music can be generally defned
as 'Celticgrass,¨ these guys also throw in
elements from other styles of music-like
the funky bass line on cut number three
'Brennan on the Moor¨-that help make
it uniquely Sligo Rags music. Check out
the two cuts that we have provided on this
issue`s CD audio companion, or go to Sligo
Rags website (www.sligorags.com) and take
a listen to some of their other tunes. You`ll
get a sense of the great vibe that these guys
put out there.
On the pages that follow we provide a
transcription of David`s solo on 'Ten Years
Reel,¨ which is the second tune performed
on the medley 'Ten Years Gone/Ten Years
Reel¨ that appears on the audio CD. At the
end of this issue`s audio companion you will
also hear the band play 'The Irish Rover,¨
added as an extra bonus to this issue`s audio.
When the band plays live, David performs
with a Lowden 0-25 jumbo size guitar, but
he records with a Martin D-35 that was
built in 1973.
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Location:
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Flatpicking Guitar Magazine September/October 2008
59
Ten Years Reel
Audio CD
Track 39
Arranged by David Burns
Capo 2

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Flatpicking Guitar Magazine September/October 2008
60
Ten Years Reel (con’t)

25
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29
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