Shane Borth: A virtuoso, with many strings attached

It’s a chilly Wednesday night in early April and a hard rain is falling. Inside a restaurant on the Country Club Plaza, a three-man band is entertaining a small crowd gathered at the bar by covering some well-known rock songs: “With or Without You” by U2; “Dear Prudence” by the Beatles; “It’s Good to Be King,” by Tom Petty; “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel.

They would sound like a well-oiled modern-rock band except for one significant difference: The tall thin guy with unkempt hair performing all the leads is playing electric fiddle, not electric guitar. Though he looks like your average local musician, he is hardly average.

About 30 minutes into its first set, the band abruptly swerves into “Road to Lisdoonvarna,” a traditional Irish reel. A few people respond to its jaunty mood by clapping along in time. Then it’s back to the rock songs. As the band returns from a break, the fiddler takes the stage alone and performs an instrumental: the Vittorio Monti version of the traditional Hungarian folk tune “Csárdás.” It gets a polite response.

“It’s kind of famous,” he would say later. “Lots of people have played it.”

The band is Flannigan’s Right Hook, and the fiddler is Shane Borth, and if his show of virtuosity is lost on those sipping beers and watching sports on the bar’s TVs, perhaps they’d be impressed by what’s on his resume.

Borth, 33, has been a member of Shooting Star, one of the more successful rock bands to come out of Kansas City. And since 2006, he has been a member of the Quixotic Fusion band. That’s also the year Flannigan’s Right Hook, his Celtic-rock band, was born. It has since become one of the busiest bands in Kansas City, having played more than 1,000 shows in a little more than five years. The band has sold 3,000 copies of its debut CD since it was released less than three years ago.

Borth, a classically trained musician, also has sat in with the Kansas City, Des Moines and Topeka symphonies. And in May he will fly to Portland, Ore., to perform as a classical violist with a piano quintet. That’s not the type of agenda you expect from a guy you’re watching fiddle through a Tom Petty cover as part of a rock trio.

But Borth is a reminder of how deceptive appearances can be. He is also a living example of the rewards of perseverance, personality and hard work.

“Shane is the type who instantly has that


. That was exemplified the first night of Wakarusa (music festival) last year. On the very first piece, Shane held his bow out as if it was a sword, and 15,000 people went nuts.”

Started lessons at 4

Music was always in the house. That’s what the gifted ones usually say. In Borth’s case, it arrived early through his mother, a music education major and piano teacher. He is the oldest of four siblings, and his parents, Jim and Dianne, enrolled all of them in violin lessons at an early age. Borth started when he was 4.

“I learned the Suzuki method — by ear,” he said. “I took private lessons all the way through high school. Practiced every day.”

Then he enrolled in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s conservatory to study with Benny Kim. Borth immediately discovered he wasn’t the hotshot he thought he was. The moment was pivotal.

“I had such a head start on everyone around me that from elementary school through high school no one else was ever as good as me,” he said. “But my freshman year at UMKC, I was the worst one there. I was basically told, ‘Dude, you barely got in. You better bust your ass.’ So I did.

“I learned right away that you really have to focus. You have to practice four hours a day and not miss a practice. You really have to buckle down if you want to compete in the classical world. It was very humbling.”

His renewed work ethic paid off. His senior year, Borth was named concertmaster, or leader of the first violin section.

By then Borth had become a member of Shooting Star, a rock band from Kansas City. Its heyday was in the early 1980s.

“They needed a violinist, so they called UMKC and asked my professor if he had any young violinists who could play rock ’n’ roll,” Borth said. “So in 2000, I started touring with them. I was known as Shane Michaels.”

He appeared on two albums and performed about 100 live shows. But after eight years, he called it quits.

“I wanted to do my own stuff with friends,” he said. “Plus, I was so busy with Flannigan’s and Quixotic.”

While in college he was also part of the local music scene with Cameron Russell, a friend from St. Thomas Aquinas High School, and Michael Cochran, a fellow conservatory student. Borth and Russell had been playing and recording music together since high school. Russell got a degree in English with a minor in music performance at the University of Kansas. In 1999, Borth, Russell and Cochoran started a band called Circadian Rhythms.

“We played every Thursday night to a college crowd at Harling’s,” Russell said. “We developed a pretty good following.”

Cochran left the picture for a few years, and Russell and Borth became the duo Self-Same. They started sitting in with Irish folk singer Eddie Delahunt, who also performed regularly at Harling’s. When Delahunt was ill in 2003, Russell and Borth filled in for him at Harling’s and O’Dowd’s Little Dublin on the Plaza.

“That’s pretty much how we got started doing the Celtic and Irish music,” Russell said.

Russell and Borth went their separate ways in 2005, but in 2006 Russell called Borth about a one-time St. Patrick’s Day gig.

“It was at O’Dowd’s,” Borth said. “We played as a three-piece, and people really dug it. It turned out really great. We did standards, like ‘Whiskey in the Jar,’ but we threw in some (Creedence Clearwater Revival) and Americana stuff. And people really liked the twist on it.”

“We didn’t know enough Irish music to fill three or four hours, so we kind of had to play something else,” Russell said, “but people seemed to appreciate the change.”

The O’Dowd’s gig led to other gigs, and Cochran, who has played drums in a few local bands, including Be/Non, was brought back on board and has stayed ever since. On New Year’s Eve 2006, Flannigan’s Right Hook was officially born. The name comes from a friend and his tendency to get rowdy and throw weak punches after having a few too many, Borth said.

But the band’s work schedule is no joke. Its blend of traditional Celtic music and Celtic rock has made it a favorite in pubs and Irish bars all over Kansas City. It has also played regularly in Omaha and St. Louis. For all three members, Flannigan’s is a full-time gig. Rare is the week it doesn’t have at least two or three shows. It had four on its calendar this week.

“We book shows any weekend we’re available,” Borth said, “and we’re pretty much available every weekend.”

That’s about to change, at least temporarily.

Quixotic is born

That same year Flannigan’s was born, Borth got a call from Anthony Magliano, the older brother of a St. Thomas Aquinas friend and someone Borth had run into at live shows in Kansas City.

“Anthony was playing auxiliary percussion with a band called the New Tragedies,” Borth said, “and Self-Same played the same gigs with them a few times. That’s how we met.”

In 2006, Magliano helped launch the dance/theater troupe Quixotic, and he wanted to compose some original music for the project. So he called Borth.

“He told me the project was going to be everything all at once,” Borth said. “There wasn’t any aerial yet, but he said there was going to be dance and lights and it was going to be crazy. But it was also going to be super-artistic, which really appealed to my classical side.”

So they started collaborating on original music.

“I remember sitting on my porch pulling all-nighters, making music with Shane,” Magliano said. “The ideas were always flowing, and the drum-and-string combinations we came up with instantly led to the first music for Quixotic.”

Borth has since become an integral part of the troupe’s music, along with Magliano and Noel Selders. They are about to release “Axis,” an album of 11 new tracks. Borth said he wrote or helped write four of them.

“Shane has shaped the melodic vibe of our group with his hauntingly beautiful string arrangements that work so well with the way I like to create music,” Magliano said.

Borth is also a key cog in its live performances. Even his bandmates laud his charisma.

“He’s one of the few musicians living the double life of conservatory-trained classical musician and ‘rock star,’ ” said the equally animated Brandon Draper, percussionist for Quixotic.

“He’s a virtuoso and he’s humble,” said Laura Scarborough, who sings and plays keyboards for the Quixotic band. “Aside from Shane’s amazing musicality and intense dedication to the practice of his instrument, he’s a true rock star — engaging, expressive. And sexy.”

In February, part of the Quixotic troupe performed at the international TED conference in Long Beach, Calif. Borth was the lone band member who made the trip.

“I never get nervous before a show,” he said. “I was nervous before that one.”

There will be plenty more shows this year. Initially, Quixotic was doing one show a year. This year is shaping up to be the busiest ever for Quixotic. Its next show is Saturday night at the Midand. Ahead are several other gigs and festivals: Wakarusa Music Festival in Ozark, Ark., where Quixotic will play the main stage, and several Wanderlust festivals.

Borth said Flannigan’s may have to take a backseat here and there to Quixotic’s busy weekend schedule in the summer, but he’ll do what he can to accommodate both and any other opportunities that might come along. Saturday night, he will perform with both.

The discipline he has developed has prepared him for that. The rewards, he said, are in doing all three, in being the guy who can jump effortlessly from a Neil Young cover to an Irish reel to a classic Hungarian folk to an original Quixotic composition.

“It’s the same instrument, I just play it completely different,” he said. “And I love doing that. Playing classical keeps my chops up. Playing the Irish music keeps my energy up, and Quixotic allows me to create something from nothing, which is amazing. I don’t deal well with being pigeon-holed. If I only did one I would be missing something. I wouldn’t be complete.”