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Rogers Park Composer, Producer and Musician Mike Kirkpatrick Leaves Legacy of His Own Musical Evolution and Artistic Impact

Mike Kirkpatrick, a Chicago-based composer, producer and musician, died Aug. 27 at 65 of colon cancer at his home in Rogers Park, just over a mile north of Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus. Kirkpatrick is survived by his longtime companion Rachel Kahsen, his brother Rick Kirkpatrick and nephew Cody Kirkpatrick.

Mike was born in Mountain Home, Idaho, though his family moved around based on where the Air Force placed his father. They lived in Germany and Montana before settling in Tucson, Ariz. where Mike Kirkpatrick attended high school.

His mother — who studied music at Furman University and was a vocalist in the Montana-based Great Falls Symphony Choir — taught him how to play piano and read music during his teens. One of the earliest songs Rick remembers his mother teaching Mike was Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.”

“It was interesting to see her and my brother at the piano learning a Steppenwolf song,” Rick Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick followed in his mother’s footsteps and studied music at the University of Arizona, though he left the Southwest for Chicago to move in with his former girlfriend and in pursuit of a more lively music scene than Tucson could offer, according to Kahsen.

Shortly after arriving in Chicago, Kirkpatrick teamed up with an early band member, Ross Thompson, in 1979 to create Far Darrig — an instrumental duo, which would later become a harmonizing trio, that played traditional Irish folk music.

Far Darrig was the launchpad for Kirkpatrick’s musical exploration and evolution. In an interview with The Phoenix, Thompson said the musician started writing by strictly adhering to the rules and traditions of Irish folk music.

“From very early on he was starting to compose original material but within the strict traditions of the forms,” Thompson said. “Some [songs] were challenging, and some I still play today.”

During his life, Kirkpatrick also created music for numerous dance companies while also teaching classes at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago (1306 S. Michigan Ave.) where he worked as an accompanist for 28 years.

Michael Caskey, a musician and music services coordinator at the Dance Center of Columbia Chicago, worked with Kirkpatrick at Columbia. On several occasions they were able to play together, mostly for the college but occasionally outside the classroom.

When Caskey was tasked with putting together a band of “off-the-cuff” musicians for a holiday party thrown by the chair of the dance department at Columbia around 2013, he picked out Kirkpatrick and a bassist he “had chemistry with” to be part of it.

He described Kirkpatrick as a “selfless” musician who fit just right with the group.

“I watched Mike finish plugging in his guitar and he just joined us straight away playing the most appropriate, most selfless part,” said Caskey. “Any other electric guitar player could’ve come in soloing, being a guitar hero. … It just made me so happy.”

When Caskey later expressed his gratitude to Kirkpatrick about the guitar part he played during the jam, he told Caskey he “just didn’t hear it any other way.”

According to Mark Howard — a Loyola alum, friend of Kirkpatrick’s and founder of the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance and the Trinity Irish Dance Company — Kirkpatrick’s time at Columbia helped him understand contemporary dance, which later came in handy when he worked with Howard to write musical accompaniment for the dancers of the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance.

In an interview with The Phoenix, Howard said the group working with him and Kirkpatrick went on to be the first American team to win the gold medal at the Irish Dancing World Championship in Dublin, Ireland in 1987. They later went on to win several more.

“My choreography was pushing boundaries, it always had an edge to it,” Howard said. “Mike’s accompaniment perfectly suited it. … It was the perfect timing for a musician and choreographer to marinate.”

On several occasions between 1989 and 1991, dancers from the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance were featured on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” performing to Kirkpatrick’s music. Kirkpatrick later composed the music for Howard’s dance entitled “Johnny,” a tribute they created for the TV show host when he announced his retirement.

After a streak of composing for dance companies, Kirkpatrick joined the Chicago-based celtic rock band, The Drovers, where Kirkpatrick helped to change the direction of the band by blending the sounds of traditional Irish folk and punk-rock to create unique, dance-oriented music.

“Mike came in before anybody was writing anything,” said Dave Callahan, who started as a fan of The Drovers but eventually joined as a vocalist and bassist. “I remember the night Mike started with them and they completely sounded different. … What was missing was finally there.”

The Drovers went on to release several records and contributed to the soundtracks of the movies “Backdraft” and “Blink” — even appearing on screen as themselves in both movies, with their scene in “Blink” having been filmed at the Metro (3730 N. Clark St.), a venue they often played.

Brendan O’Shea, a former member of The Drovers who performed in “Backdraft” and also later worked with Kirkpatrick and Howard on Colin Dunne’s “Listen,” said their movie appearances changed their live shows for the better.

“One of their scouts came to one of our regular gigs in Chicago and they were like, ‘We want you in this movie,’” O’Shea said. “After that happened it was kind of incredible. … People were just swarming to gigs.”

Kirkpatrick even met his longtime partner through the group. When Kahsen — a fan of the group prior to meeting Kirkpatrick — was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, her friend would house The Drovers when they passed through on tour.

“I happened to be there one night when they were playing at a club called The Intersection and we just kind of hit it off,” Kahsen said. “We took a couple of years to get to know each other and I ended up moving back to Chicago because of him.”

While the band stopped playing in 2002, according to Callahan, Kirkpatrick continued to write music. He eventually put together The Drovers Unlimited Orchestra, a diverse cast of musicians he brought together to record what he had been writing.

The group released an album in 2017 entitled “The Drovers Unlimited Orchestra Vol. 2” which will soon be followed up by another that the group has been working on in recent years.

Tracking for the work finished earlier this year and Kirkpatrick fought through declining health to finish the project, according to Rick Barnes — the owner and chief recording engineer of Rax Trax Recording, where The Drovers and Drovers Unlimited Orchestra had recorded.

“You could see his health was going down the drain,” Barnes said. “But what was really fantastic about Mike was that he was relentless about finishing this record. Cancer be damned, he was going to finish this record.”

And according to Bob Palmieri — a musician and 26-year DePaul professor of jazz guitar who worked on The Drovers Unlimited Orchestra — Kirkpatrick’s final project is nearing completion.

While a release date has not been set, Palmieri is optimistic the final piece of Kirkpatrick’s legacy will soon be ready to be shared because tracking for the album is finished and mixing is almost complete.

The posthumous release is a combination of freeform jazz — the farthest he could have strayed from the strict songwriting he displayed in Far Darrig — and, of course, the backbone of Mike Kirkpatrick’s career: traditional Irish folk music.

“He gave people a lot of room, and in his case, it’s a good idea,” Palmieri said. “He felt the Irish music genre could be expanded greatly by bringing in people who have real deep roots in other kinds of music. … His version of bringing music from lots of diverse cultural roots together really worked because of his very well-grounded looseness about letting people do what they do.”

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Zack Miller
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Credits:

In order of appearance: Mike Kirkpatrick working with the Trinity Irish Dance Company on a rainy day (Photo by Chelsea Hoy). | The cover of Far Darrig’s 45 record, “Step It Out Mary/What Brought the Blood,” which at the time comprised of Ross Thompson and Mike Kirkpatrick (Courtesy of Ross Thompson, photo by Leslie Borns). | Far Darrig — Ross Thompson, Janice Matella-Thompson and Mike Kirkpatrick — pose for a promotional photo (Photo by Richard Martin). | Mike Kirkpatrick accompanies the trinity Irish Dance Company in the studio (Photo by Chelsea Hoy). | Sean Cleland, Dave Callahan, Jackie Moran and Mike Kirkpatrick perform as The Drovers during a stint on the East coast in 1993 (Courtesy of Dave Callahan). | Mike Kirkpatrick, Doug Evans, Sean Cleland and Dave Callahan stand in front of an automobile dealership in Kansas City, Missouri in 1994 (Courtesy of Dave Callahan). | Mike Kirkpatrick, Paul Bradley, Dave Callahan and Sean Cleland pose on the back porch of a Southport department store in 1995 (Courtesy of Dave Callahan). | Liz Carroll, an American fiddle player, and Mike Kirkpatrick in the studio recording for the Drovers Unlimited Orchestra (Photo by Bob Palmieri). | Mike Kirkpatrick smiles for the camera, a rare occurrence according to Rachel Kahsen. “It’s one of the rare times he actually smiled in a picture and isn’t looking away,” Kahsen said. “[His friends] commented that the smile on his face is the smirk he has after he’s just told a joke and pulled one over on you,” (Photo by Bob Palmieri).