An Irish elegy: Sacramento mourns the loss of Celtic fiddle sensation St. John Fraser

Saint John Fraser accompanying a local Shakespeare production last summer put on by a youth theater program. Photo courtesy of the Fraser family.

The strings have settled for One Eyed Reilly performer who now ‘moves into another expression of being’

By Casey Rafter

The Irish have a toast that’s often uttered when a loved one has passed on:

“May you be in heaven a full half-hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”

It seems entirely possible for Geith Saint John “Sinjin” Fraser to have done just that when, on Feb. 18, he lost his years-long battle with cancer.

Fraser played fiddle for the well-celebrated Sacramento Irish band One Eyed Reilly; and based on the sway he held over crowds when that band covered “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Satan himself might have been a long-time opponent of Fraser’s.

Every fan, friend and family member still speaks with bittersweet elation when recalling the fury Fraser issued as he put bow-to-string for that song, creating a near-magical musical friction.

“When they kick into that, and you hear that first riff play, everybody knows what’s going to happen and it’s completely bananas,” recalled Sheena Kawakami, a fan of One Eyed Reilly since 2015. “It’s what everybody waits for.”

Fraser’s wife Andrea— as well as long-time friend Bobby Waller — claimed that Fraser’s fiddle playing was even faster than Charlie Daniel’s in the original country classic.

Andrea said the songs that she cherished most are a little different. One Eyed Reilly’s cover of “Comfortably Numb” was an early favorite for her, though her husband’s visit to Alasdair Fraser’s Sierra Fiddle Camp yielded a new contender.

“That’s actually where he learned my favorite song that he plays, called ‘Cuillin of Rum,’” Andrea reflected. “He played it for me one time when he was warming up before a gig. It was absolutely beautiful. He does this whole intro where he … talks about the song.”

On the song, Fraser solos on fiddle, conjuring a melodic, relaxing instrumental that evokes imagery of dew drying in a field of grass as the sun touches the ground. These were slow, beautiful harmonies that Andrea said Fraser always played slightly differently.

St. John Fraser at Father Paddy’s Public House in Woodland, a venue he often performed in. Photo Courtesy of the Fraser family.

In the latest installment of the Stout Rebellion podcast, host and Celtic songwriter Bobby Waller re-released an in-depth with Fraser about his art.

The episode, titled ‘The Indefinite Long-term Sabbatical,’ dives deeply into the fiddler’s early life as a strictly trained young violinist, the man’s 17-year gap in playing after the age of 18, and his long journey back to the stage as he overcame childhood traumas to play with One Eye’d Reilly and Stout Rebellion. With those acts, Sacramento-area audiences got hooked on Fraser’s powerful playing at venues like The Delta King and Father Paddy’s Public House.

“Sinjin always introduced me as, ‘the one that got me to be a soloist,’ because, before, all of his training was in classical music and it’s not improvisation,” Waller explained. “He would always tell the story, ‘I was playing, and Bobby would look at me and nodded to see if I wanted to take a solo and I would shake my head no and he’d hand it to me anyway.’”

Fraser noticed that, in order to perform, he had to be watching his hands on the strings of the fiddle. After nearly toppling down a set of stairs, doctors found a six-centimeter mass in his brain. Fraser was diagnosed with a stage 3 mass and given three-to-five years to live. According to Andrea, he beat that clock for 15 years with a brain tumor that could have ended him in mere months.

At one point in that journey, Fraser said he asked himself, “Are you comfortable ending your life with not having picked up your violin again? The answer was no.”

During Waller’s podcast interview, Fraser also talked about the strain of having a mother who demanded four-to-six hours of daily violin practice when Fraser was a boy. Even with the break in playing, that structured engagement with his instrument was still present when Fraser struck up with One Eyed Reilly, but in more practical terms.

“One Eyed Reilly has the reputation of being one of the most gig-heavy bands of all the Irish bands in the area,” Waller noted. “When they started, they also had a really heavy practice schedule, because they wanted to get really good [and] they’re tight and really close and that’s a result of a ton of practice.”

Fraser, left, with his fellow bandmates in One Eyed Reilly performing on the Delta King. Photo courtesy of the Fraser family.

James Wilson, the mandolinist for Stout Rebellion, liked to call Sinjin his musical friend. He said crossing paths with the orange-haired fiddler left an unforgettable impression, flashing charm and an easy smile.

“I first encountered him at Brownie’s in Land Park on an evening when Stout Rebellion was playing,” Wilson remembered. “He stuck around for the music and clearly enjoyed the evening … He mentioned something along the lines of, ‘I play a bit of fiddle myself.’ There’s an understatement indeed.”

Wilson stressed that Fraser was one of the best musicians and staunchest supporters of the Irish/Celtic music scene in Sacramento.

Andrea Fraser remembers Sinjin as a talented ambitious musician on the stage and a humble loving fighter off it. She described his fashion choices for their first date: She saw Tie dye, a red Cardinals hat and a pair of Tavas on the sizeable frame of this red-bearded man measuring in at 6’4.

“I was like, ‘Oh, he’s been single for a while,’” Andrea mused, launching into giggles. “He never left anything unsaid, and he always made sure that people that cared about him, or that he cared about, knew exactly how we felt. He always loved when people talked about music; and he always felt like music was the thing that unified us all – it’s the one common thing we could all share together.”

Waller ended the latest Stout Rebellion podcast by lamenting the loss of a friend, former bandmate and jolly soul within the community. He wagered Fraser’s energy will still inspire those who knew him.

“I will greatly miss my friend as a physical being, but I don’t believe for a moment that his spirit will play any less of a role in the lives of the people he touched,” Waller said sadly at the close of the episode. “God speed, Mr. Fraser. Thanks for all of the music.”

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1 Comment on "An Irish elegy: Sacramento mourns the loss of Celtic fiddle sensation St. John Fraser"

  1. He was an amazing human being and will be missed!!

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