“Can you tell me why they call you the Jimi Hendrix of the violin?” I'm chatting with Eileen Ivers, Bronx-born one-time house blue electric violinist for Riverdance. One must admit, it seems like a curious moniker. Over the phone, Ivers dissolves in laughter.
“I wish I could,” she finally continues. “One wonderful gentleman from some paper put that. I'd love to think that in some way -- he had such a love of blues and roots -- I don't know, I won't even go there, but I feel so connected to the instrument.” Oh, plus she integrates into her concerts (one of which will be rocking Freight and Salvage Thu/4) liberal doses of jams, electric violin, wah-wah pedal, and, dare we say, soul? “I love to put that to an audience to open their minds -- this instrument can rock out as well.” The pieces are beginning to come together...
Perhaps I'm fixating on the comparison because at first glance, there is very little to tie together the lives of Hendrix and Ivers, who was born to immigrant parents used to the hardship and poverty in their birthland of County Mayo, Ireland. “There's no Gaelic word for immigration -- just for exit,” Ivers tells me. “It shows culturally they never wanted to leave, but they had to in the mass exodus.” She talks like an Irish person, falling into discussions of my Gaelic name as those of her (our) ethnic persuasion are wont to do and converses with a hint of that sing-song lilt that is the mark of the Emerald Isle.
Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul, sans Photoshop butchering. Photo by Luke Ratray
Ivers learned her craft through a man in the New York neighborhood she grew up who delighted in teaching the young people in the area how to play the tunes of their cultural legacy. Love of the instrument buoyed her through years at Iona College spent studying mathematics and into a career that's seen her play with Celtic legends The Chieftains, the international touring company of Riverdance, over 40 symphonic orchestras, and on soundtracks for films like Gangs of New York (2002).
It was through the multitudinous nature of the city's music scene that the influences audible in her new tracks like “Paddy in Zululand” came to the fore. That tune in particular features an Irish melody plucked out by Iver's violin which emerges from a background of upbeat African percussion – testament to the connections that Ivers sees between the divergent cultures' musical forms.
Which isn't a particularly unique thing in and of itself – the Bay Area's Markus James performs similar transmutations with African string music and Americana blues (vocalist Tommy McDonnell of Ivers' touring band, Immigrant Soul, was a member of the original Blues Brothers band with Dan Akroyd and John Goodman). What may be unique is the bubbling sense of happiness that is exuded from Ivers when she imparts her art upon a listening crowd – or jaded local journalist, who she gracefully includes in her comments regarding the musical resonance she finds in these cross-continent musical similarities. “It's in our heart -- you hear these grooves and it feels right,” she says.
Lost in the music, you might say. Just like Jimi, right?
Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul
Thu/4 8 p.m., $23.50-$22.50
Freight & Salvage
2020 Addison, SF