The musicians of Jamison are motoring noisily through sound check at Curran’s Tacony on a steamy Friday night, getting ready to begin their show. Off in a corner that is only marginally quieter than the rest of the area around the bar is the band’s fiddler Alice Marie Quirk, the humidity making her long curly hair even curlier.
She has just arrived from a 4thof July gig at a retirement community—a pretty fair indication of how busy and versatile she is. Her sound check is just a few minutes away, but for now she is taking a few moments to tell her story—how she made the transition from classical viola to fiddle in a Celtic rock band.
It’s an incomplete transition because classical music remains an important part of her life, but for some time she has been a fixture on the Philly paddy rock scene.
Quirk—who just goes by the name “Alice Marie” because people tended to mistake “Quirk” for names like “Kirk” and unfailingly mispronounce it—has come a long way from her Bachelor of Arts degree in music, with a minor in theology, from Immaculata University and her teaching certification from Eastern. (She also taught music for a time in the Philadelphia School District.)
“I’ve actually only been playing fiddle for about 10 years, but I’ve been playing viola, which is similar to the fiddle, since I was 9,” she says. “I used to play in orchestras and what not, so that’s really where I began. I love the Romantic era, anything 19thcentury. I’m a big fan; I love it. I was just listening to (Temple radio station) WRTI today and Scheherazade was on. That is my element. All the rich, Russian romantic music—it’s beautiful.
“I used to do Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, and then I did Immaculata Symphony, and then I did the Kennett Symphony Orchestra, along with some occasional duets and trios—and weddings, you know, all that kind of schtick. I still do that, but now I do a lot more with the electric violin.”
It was the band Round Tower that brought her over to Celtic rock, she says, when she was still in college. She thinks of them as her “Irish godfathers.” She still accompanies Round Tower from time to time. “They got me into Irish music, and that’s how I found out about Blackthorn and so on.”
It’s the high energy of Irish rock music that appeals to Alice Marie the most. She especially loves that she can perform many solos and improvisations. You can’t take that approach in classical music because, she says, “you have to stick to the book.”
“I also like how a lot of these songs are telling a story,” she says. “It’s folk music. I also love being able to sing more. I can be more theatrical.”
To that end, along with occasional Round Tower gigs, Alice Marie has played with other bands, including Barleyjuice, The Malarkey Brothers and Celtic Pride.
But Alice Marie’s musical curiosity takes her to unexpected places—unexpected, perhaps, for audiences who know her only for paddy rock. For example, she accompanies an artist named Jea Street in a rhythm and blues band. “We just played the Firefly Music Festival,” she says. “We play a lot of R&B, soul and hip hop. There’s a lot of jazz-based material as well.”
Alice Marie’s book is obviously pretty full. She had about 25 engagements during the month. But as winter arrives, the gigs can dry up. Being a full-time performer is not an easy life. You have to piece together what you can, and you have to save during the boom times because you know there are going to be lean times. “You’re going to be crying if you don’t,” she says.
“Christmas is good, but it’s that January-February lull you have to plan for. My season picks up around Valentine’s Day because I can do a lot of strolling violin gigs—romantic-themed music. But January to February 14this rough. Even November for some reason can be a little tough.”
One of her gigs is a bit on the theatrical side. She accompanies Jason Fogg, entrepreneur and proprietor of Pops McCann Irish Whiskey, from time to time. “I’ll do some Irish music, but I’ll also do some jazz. It’s a 1920s speakeasy theme,” she explains. “Jason does his suitcase show with the whiskey, and then I sing my little jazz schtick. We have about a two-hour show that we’ve done at the Anglesea in North Wildwood and Con Murphy’s in Center City. That’s also where I had my album release party.”
It’s worth noting that Quirk also plays funerals.
Clearly, Alice Marie Quirk has found her niche—or many niches.
“I mostly do Irish music and then jazz, because the album I just put out was a jazz album. I really enjoy playing by ear. I love to improvise, so I really do enjoy rock and roll and jazz. I just put myself out there and I just try to do the best I can.”