The End of an Era

The Shenanigans give final performance to bid farewell to Jessie Burns


— The Boulder music scene had tugged on Jessie Burns for sometime. As an Irish fiddle player and founder of the well-known local Celtic-bluegrass band the Shenanigans, living in a place considered to be at the heart of a traditional music movement is an inviting thought.

Burns really has one devotion to play Irish folk songs as much as she can and Boulder can present that opportunity.

However, with the community and the environment of the Yampa Valley pulling her the other way, Burns had a tough time committing to a move to the Front Range.

Until one week she received three phone calls that made her think someone was trying to tell her something. Burns' landlord called to ask her about moving out, someone inquired about a job at her work at Strings in the Mountains, and a member of a Celtic band forming in Boulder called needing a fiddle player.

"That was a big sign that I just couldn't ignore," she said.

So Burns, the blonde-haired musician with a little English accent and a big fiddle sound, will make the move to Boulder this fall. When that happens, she will leave behind hours of jamming for Steamboat audiences at parties and bars with the Shenanigans.

"Sometimes it's better go out with a bang," Shenanigans bass player Bob Shaffer said.

"Jessie won't admit it, but she's really the heart of this band."

The Shenanigans play their last show at 9 p.m. today at the Yacht Club as a farewell to their fiddle player.

Burns formed the original Shenanigans in November 1998 to play two nights a week at Monahan's, an Irish Pub that closed down a couple of years ago. She was living in Vermont when the opportunity to play at the pub came up. She spent the previous winter in Steamboat but moved to pursue a degree in environmental tourism. The job wasn't working out, and Burns jumped at a chance to move back to Steamboat to play Irish music.

Fellow musicians Shaffer, John Aviza, Gary Berman and Megan Dorn agreed to join the band, and thus the band was born.

It has had a few incarnations since then. Today, the lineup is Shaffer on bass, Aviza on guitar, Von Wilson on banjo and Greg Zulevich on mandolin.

"It's just been great, without a doubt," Aviza said.

Before playing with Burns, Aviza said he was mainly a bluegrass guitar player.

"Nobody was playing Irish music here until Jessie came," he said.

Now with probably 100 Irish songs under his belt, Aviza has adopted that style of music.

"My rhythm style was in that vein," he said. "It was a natural extension of what I was doing."

For Burns, the music was a natural extension of herself and her family.

"The reason I like this music is because it's in my blood. I don't like anything else this much," Burns said. "I mean anything this much."

It really is in her blood, from her father's side to be exact. Burns' grandfather was a northern Irish Protestant. While in Belfast studying to be a doctor, he fell in love with an Irish Catholic woman from the Wicklow Mountains in southern Ireland. The two married, but because of their conflicting religious backgrounds, both of their families disowned them.

Burns' grandparents moved to London, where they would be more accepted. That's how the Burns family came to England and why Jessie Burns speaks with an English accent.

But the Irish music didn't come to her automatically, though she comes from a musical family. Two of her stepsisters are violinists. One sister, Clare, plays in an orchestra in Prague. The other, Nell, is in a popular Irish rock band in England with her stepbrother, Ben. Also, an uncle in the family played violin in orchestras that recorded with the Beatles on "Hey Jude." Following suit of the other violinists in the family, Burns was a classical musician much of her life, playing in school since the age of 8.

At 19, after taking an extended trip to Borneo in Asia, where she couldn't bring her violin, Burns entered the university in Durham, England. However, because she wasn't able to practice during her trip, she failed to make it into the school's orchestra.

After finding out she couldn't play in the orchestra, Burns went into a pub for a beer. There, traditional Irish musicians were having a seisium (a Celtic word meaning a gathering of musicians). Seeing this as an opportunity to keep playing music, Burns approached the group.

"I just asked them if they would teach me all their songs," she said.

For two years she frequented the pub, learning the songs the group played.

"They just kind of took me under their wing," Burns said. "I fell in love with it from then on. I couldn't bear to not keep playing."

Today, Burns holds to that fact. She is the consummate performer.

"The thing about Jessie is that she has the ability to really perform when she has to," Aviza said.

When it comes time to play, Burns is the first to step on stage and play well, he said.

"You always can depend on her to make it happen," he said.

Now she's taking that skill to Boulder, with the hopes of one day supporting herself by playing the music she loves.

But even if heading to Boulder is the right move for her, Burns said it's hard to leave Steamboat.

"It's seemed to get even better since I've decided to leave," she said.

"The generosity and support of the community, and the caring, is just amazing. That's one of the reasons why I want to

go to Boulder.

"When it gets too much, I can come back."


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