If you’re lucky enough to be in the front row at a performance by the Mimi Burns Band, you might just get sprinkled with fairy dust. That’s because these progressive Celtic rockers aren’t satisfied with simply treating audiences to their unique take on an ancient musical form. When this octet is in the house, you’re guaranteed a show. The men wear kilts, Mimi the kind of flowing dress and glittery makeup that’s one part Princess Bride, two parts A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Their stage presence is epic, mind-blowing, big. And then they start to play.
“It’s so wonderful for me to have the privilege to play with musicians who can take something that’s really just this weird dream in my head and turn it into something amazing, into something real,” Burns told me before a recent band rehearsal at C2G Music Hall. “These guys have lived up to my fantasy of a band and then some. I’m astounded by what they can do.”
Burns and her husband, Stephen Tyler, started the Mimi Burns Band in 1998 in the Bay Area where they met and fell in love. Burns, a native of Illinois, and Tyler, who was born in southwestern England, connected immediately over their shared love of songwriting and the blues.
“On our first date we talked for seven hours,” said Burns, “and on our second date we wrote our first song.”
Not that such collaboration came easily to these two fiercely talented and driven artists. Tyler describes their initial songwriting sessions as “volatile.”
“Of course, that can sometimes be when the magic happens,” he said.
Magic did indeed happen. Together Burns, Tyler and their now long-gone original lineup released two albums in less than four years – Slipping Away and The Ballade of Ned Haywood, with The Ballade bringing them international acclaim and earning them tours in Europe and the U.K.
Eventually Burns and Tyler settled in Fort Wayne to raise their children – sons Harrison (named after George) and Gabriel (after Peter) and daughter May (for Brian May of Queen whose solo from “On Top of the Palace” happened to be playing when little May really started kicking in earnest). The demands of family led to the band’s hiatus in 2002, but Burns and Tyler never stopped writing music.
“We’re not able to not create,” Burns said.
“Music has all the trappings of an addiction,” added Tyler. “It’s so hard to quit once you’ve had the rush you get when you write your first song, perform your first show. We have been blessed with children and we cherish the time we’ve spent as parents, but music is something we have to do.”
And so, in 2008, the Mimi Burns Band reformed, and both Burns and Tyler feel strongly that the musicians they were able to attract the second time around represent the best incarnation of the band.
“We live for that moment when the audience gets that ‘deer in the headlights’ look,” Burns said. “They want to laugh at first. They see all these guys in kilts up on stage, and then these men start to play and jaws just drop. I know mine does, and I play with them every week.”
With Burns on vocals and Tyler on lead guitar, the other “jaw-dropping” duties are shared by Will Brown on percussion, Dave Baker on keys, Adam Colclesser on bass, Andy Kramer on bagpipes, Bryan Nellems on drums and Derek Reeves on fiddle. Many of those names are familiar to Fort Wayne music fans. Brown and Nellems both play in the Afro-Disiacs, Reeves is the principal violist for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Kramer used to play the pipes for Mother Grove.
Each bandmate brings his own history, training and aesthetic to the table, making for a very rich banquet of sound you might not expect to hear at a Celtic rock concert. For instance, Colclesser has been known to drop a little acid jazz into his bass lines, while Brown, a professional congo player, brings an island beat to the mix and even throat sings on several songs. Baker, who doubles as C2G’s praise music pianist, adds his Beatles-inspired rock sensibility to the group, and Nellems, a modern-style drummer, is given free reign to experiment and add his own personal touches to the band’s growing repertoire.
“We’re like a progressive rock, jazz, punk, blues, Afro-Cuban, Celtic band,” Burns said. “I guess that makes us pretty unique.”
You might think that trying to blend so many disparate styles would be difficult and could lead to discord, but the opposite is true, according to Reeves.
“I’ve always been the kind of musician to push the envelope,” he said, “and I feel like every musician in this band is a kindred spirit. It’s a pleasure to play with so many like-minded people who come from such different places and whose music comes together beautifully. It’s organic. That’s the best way I can describe it.”
It’s also Celtic rock with a conscience. Tyler got into songwriting to make a difference in the world, and Burns shares his values. It’s obvious from listening to just a few of the band’s many originals that the group is committed not just to entertaining their audiences but to inspiring them as well. For instance, their version of “Amazing Grace,” which will be included on the band’s fourth album, Where the Journey Begins, explores the provenance of the now beloved hymn penned by reformed slave owner John Newton. Many people who’ve grown up singing about how the sweet sound might not know that Newton, when he wrote of wretches, was writing about his own guilt over having shoved countless Africans overboard during his time as a slave ship owner.
Burns and Tyler invited Abassa Camara, a djembe player from Guinea, to lend his vocals to the track, and at one point in the song he actually breaks down and weeps for his ancestors. The band has heard from many fans and friends that the song is too raw, too disturbing to listen to with any enjoyment, but Burns said that’s one way she knows they’ve created something of lasting beauty and impact.
“I know that with ‘Amazing Grace’ we made art, true art that has the ability to open up people’s minds and hearts,” she said.
The members of the Mimi Burns Band do not shy away from the difficulties in life. Their shows may be sprinkled with fairy dust, but their songs traffic in the very real heartbreaks that Burns and Tyler have experienced as a married couple and as parents. Their song “Netherworld,” included on the band’s third album, I Know You’re Out There, is about the death of one of their children.
“You can say things in music you might not be able to say in conversation,” Tyler said. “We’ve written about the pain of a child’s death, about dealing with addiction, about the most intimate aspects of our married life, and it’s made our marriage stronger. Music has literally saved us.”