Mike Kirkpatrick, who transformed popular Chicago band The Drovers, has died at 65

The musician-composer-producer also taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music and was a Joseph Jefferson Awards nominee for Steppenwolf’s ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane.’

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Musician, composer and producer Mike Kirkpatrick in his Rogers Park dining room surrounded by his books.

Musician, composer and producer Mike Kirkpatrick in his Rogers Park dining room surrounded by his books.

Bob Palmieri

When 10-year-old Mike Kirkpatrick heard the growly feedback on the first five seconds of the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” it changed his life.

He became a musician who pushed boundaries and experimented with sounds. He loved it all: traditional Irish airs, the jazz of Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, Snoop Dogg, AC/DC, Bach, music of the African bush. 

He synthesized what he heard and created something new.

Mr. Kirkpatrick taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music and Columbia College Chicago and was a Joseph Jefferson Awards nominee for his work on Steppenwolf Theatre’s 1999 production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”

A multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger and producer, his music contributed to the success of the Trinity Irish Dancers.

He was also a member of the Drovers, an Irish folk-rock band that was in the center of the Venn diagram of all that was North Side hip in the 1980s and 1990s. They played Chicago bars and the American college circuit, performed in Europe and at ethnic festivals throughout the United States and Canada, appeared at the Golden Globes and the Guinness Fleadh and opened for Common, Steve Earle, the Jerry Garcia Band and Ani DiFranco. Famed Chicago recording engineer Steve Albini worked on their album “Little High Sky Show.”

Mr. Kirkpatrick’s music also was heard in two movies in which the Drovers appeared: “Backdraft” and “Blink.”

He shaped and energized the band’s sound, infusing it with influences from around the world.

Even Mr. Kirkpatrick’s song titles could be evocative. “She’s As Pretty as Brian Jones Was” was inspired by the band’s stay with a Rolling Stones fan when a snowstorm stranded them in New York.

Mr. Kirkpatrick, 65, died of colon cancer Aug. 27 at his Rogers Park home.

His longtime companion Rachel Kahsen, grateful he was able to avoid being in a hospital, said, “He was home with a beautiful view of the lake and the beach. He got to be home with me and the cats.”

Mike Kirkpatrick.

Mike Kirkpatrick.

Philamonjaro Photography

She said one of the last things he listened to was the paradisiacal flute-playing of Matt Molloy of The Chieftains. He was surrounded by his books on music, history, archaeology and poetry, which line the couple’s dining room floor-to-ceiling.

A posthumous release is planned of recordings he made at Rax Trax studios with a diverse collection of musicians he dubbed the Drovers Unlimited Orchestra. They include fiddler Liz Carroll, the first American composer to receive Ireland’s top cultural award for traditional music, and jazz greats like saxophonist Dave Liebman.

Renowned jazz guitarist Bob Palmieri said he looked around at one point and asked: “Am I the only person at this recording session who didn’t work with Miles Davis?” He was.

Trinity founder Mark Howard said Mr. Kirkpatrick’s music inspired his choreography, helping his students become — in the late 1980s — the first Americans to win the world team championship at Ireland’s top stepdance competition. That led to appearances on “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.” And Mr. Kirkpatrick composed the music to a dance Howard created, “Johnny,” in honor of the talk-show host.

Those successes helped lead to a professional touring company, the Trinity Irish Dance Company, which has performed around the globe.

In 1990, when Mr. Kirkpatrick started playing guitar for the Drovers, “He wrote all the initial songs, melodies, lyrics, fiddle breaks,” fiddler Séan Cleland, founder of the group and of the Irish Music School of Chicago, wrote on Facebook. “He changed the course and sound of the Drovers, and he made it a real band.” 

“He was a great songwriter, an incredible composer and a fierce performer,” Drovers fiddler Kathleen Keane said. “I also had the most magical musical experience of my entire career while recording one of Mike’s original compositions. It featured Dave Liebman on saxophone and myself on low whistle. The first take was just supposed to be a trial run, but, under Mike’s direction, it was the only take — a magical first-time wonder take.”

Drovers bassist Dave Callahan said that, at shows, Mr. Kirkpatrick might jump from guitar to grand piano or from flute to drums. He’d even play a pump organ like those found in old Scandinavian churches, said Callahan, who now lives in Uppsala, Sweden.

Carroll said Mr. Kirkpatrick’s compositions forced her to push past her boundaries.

“Often, his pieces were tricky, and I think he took great pleasure in my befuddlement over some of the melodies,” she said. “Always, when the arrangements came into place, of course, everything made sense.”

Mr. Kirkpatrick also is survived by his brother Rick Kirkpatrick.

A celebration of life might be held after the pandemic. Kahsen said he loved Mionetto Prosecco: “Maybe, after all of this, we’ll all have a toast in his honor.”

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