It’s only rock and roll… but I like it. Mick Jagger was both host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live this past weekend and, for his first number, he performed the Rolling Stones classic “The Last Time” while backed by Arcade Fire. It isn’t everyday you see the lead singer of the Stones shimmying with an accordion player (in this case, Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne), so savor this image while you can.
Craigslist recently started producing a fun series of videos called Craigslist TV, which follows interesting posts from real Craigslist users and shows how their transactions unfold.
In this episode, Robin wants to give away an old accordion… but there’s a catch. Whoever claims it must first play the accordion at a dinner party for her family. When three prospective “buyers” show up — professional Gigi, underdog Michael, and quirky Renee — an “Accordion Idol” competition is held, complete with a panel of judges to decide who gets to keep the accordion. Tune in for the feel-good story of the year.
Jan Lewan was living the American dream. After emigrating from Poland in the mid-1970s, Lewan was a hotel worker by day, but a one-man show at night, singing and entertaining at church halls and Polish club functions. He settled down in Hazleton, PA, and started performing polka music, eventually forming his own band, the Jan Lewan Orchestra.
By the 1990s, Lewan was one of polka’s biggest stars, drawing thousands of polka fans to concerts and festivals on the East Coast and earning a Grammy nomination in 1995 for Best Polka Album. This video, from a performance at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, shows Lewan at the height of his popularity (and handkerchief-throwing powers):
And then it all unraveled. In January 2001, Lewan’s tour bus crashed on the way to Florida and two musicians — accordionist Tommy Karas and trombonist John Stabinsky — were killed. Lewan’s son Daniel was also seriously injured.
Lewan was also in hot water over dealings with his store in Hazleton where he sold Polish souvenirs. He sold unregistered promissory notes to investors in order to build his business, but the market soured and he failed to repay them. In 2004, he was sentenced to five years in federal prison for bilking investors out of millions of dollars. While in prison, he was nearly killed by an inmate who tried to slash his throat with a razor blade.
Now, a documentary called The Man Who Would Be Polka King tells the story of Jan Lewan’s rise and fall. Here’s the trailer; the film made the rounds at festivals last year, but you can watch the complete film online at Babelgum.
Lewan was released from prison last year and is currently mounting a comeback to rehabilitate his image and pay restitution to the (justifiably angry) investors whose money he lost. He’s also working on a polka-rap fusion with Vanilla Ice which sounds like it could be grounds for another criminal offense…
I’ll admit, I don’t watch a lot of TV these days unless it’s Sesame Street or baseball, so when a friend asked me if I watch Mad Men, I just shrugged and replied, “That’s the one with the guys in suits, right?” When his jaw dropped and he said, “YOU MEAN YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE ONE WITH THE ACCORDION?!?”, I figured I should probably catch up.
Indeed, in the third episode of season three — “My Old Kentucky Home” for anyone looking it up on DVD or iTunes — office manager Joan Holloway hosts a tense dinner party where, after prodding from her husband, she reluctantly pulls out her accordion and sings “C’est Magnifique.” (And does it quite well.)
It turns out that Christina Hendricks, the actress who plays Joan, is no newcomer to the accordion; she’s been playing for a few years. In an LA Times Magazine interview last month, she talked about how she got into the accordion:
“I started taking lessons four or five years ago. It is such a rich instrument for one person. You can get so much out of it, like a one-man band. I also think it’s a very romantic instrument, and it channels all the things I love—French culture, Tom Waits—and all the things I try to make my house look like. It’s something I’ve always been interested in.”
For an in-depth deconstruction of the Mad Men accordion scene, check out this essay from ethnomusicologist Meredith Aska McBride, who puts the performance into its 1960s context.
Ray Charles, Johnny Cash… if they deserved their own biopics, then why not one for the accordion-playing king of song parodies, “Weird” Al Yankovic? Check out this wish-it-were-true trailer for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, with appearances by Patton Oswalt and Mary Steenburgen (!?!). I love the scene where Al’s dad finds the “Modern Accordion” and “Accordion Player” magazines with Walter Ostanek on the cover.
If you want to see the real “Weird” Al, he’s just announced summer concert dates — check his website for dates.
As we learned while building our directory, accordion shops — particularly ones that only sell and repair accordions — are few and far between. So we were excited to run across this video promoting Main Squeeze, the colorful accordion shop on New York City’s Lower East Side.
Run by Walter Kuhr, the store offers new/used accordions, repairs and lessons, and is home base for the all-female Main Squeeze Accordion Orchestra. Main Squeeze even has its own line of accordions, most notably the Model 911 — a compact 72 bass accordion made from walnut wood. Seems to a popular model as I’ve seen photos of a few artists using it recently, including John Linnell of They Might Be Giants.
Move over ABBA; I have a new favorite Swedish band. Detektivbyrån is a folk/electronic Swedish trio with a penchant for whimsical arrangements and Amelie-inspired melodies. Like a music box gone wild, their instrumentals balance the sprightly tinkling of glockenspiel, bells, and toy piano with a boisterous accordion and occasional synthesizer. This video captures the band performing “Generation Celebration” from their latest album, Wermland.
(Found via Lauralee and Squeezytunes)
On the Internet can you become a star overnight; just ask Ukranian accordionist Aleksandr Hrustevich. Late last week, this video of Hrustevich performing the third movement of “Summer” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” swept across the Internet faster than his fingers across his bayan (Russian chromatic button accordion). From NPR to Digg, viewers raved about his performance, mostly along the lines of “Wow, I never knew an accordion could sound like this!” Indeed it can.
Check Aleksandr’s YouTube profile for more videos, including performances of Bach, Tchaikovsky, and more.
Last month, the American Accordionists Association held its annual festival in Memphis, Tennessee. The gathering featured performances by Riders in the Sky (with Joey Miskulin), Jeff Lisenby and the NashVegas Jazz, Tony Lovello, Bruce Gassman, Joe Natoli and Mary Tokarski. In between the concerts, workshops and competitions, a small band of accordionists made their way over to the King’s house for a little rock and roll… accordion-style.
We’ve been seeing a lot of encouraging signs that the accordion is gaining popularity — one of which is a sharp increase in emails from people who want to learn how to play the accordion. Even better, we keep finding new resources to help them get started. Here are a few we’ve uncovered recently…
Accordion lesson books have always been a popular topic on our site and recently I’ve had a couple accordion teachers recommend a relatively new series from Santorella Publications. Written by Jay Latulippe, Santorella’s three book series isn’t as deep as the venerable Palmer-Hughes series (which has ten), but it includes more contemporary styles and each book comes with a companion CD. Santorella also publishes two diatonic button accordion lesson books (also with CDs) by Henry Doktorski.
Books are great, but working directly with an accordion teacher is even better. For those who can’t find a local teacher, Duane Schnur’s online accordion lessons may be the next best thing. Recently retired, Duane taught accordion for nearly forty years and has decided to “give something back” in the form of these free downloadable lessons. There are forty-six lessons available so far; each includes a PDF with sheet music and an MP3 of Duane leading the lesson.
For visual learners, the rise of YouTube has made it incredibly easy to find and share lesson videos online. For instance, I’ve always struggled with the bellows shake, but thanks to this video from Australian accordionist Dave Evans, I’m well on my way to becoming the next Dick Contino.
Finally, readers may have noticed the link to Debra Peters’ The ABC’s of Accordion Basics lesson DVDs on our site. We’ll do a full review of her DVDs in a future post, but if you’re looking for an introduction to rock and blues accordion, there’s no better place to start.
Have you come across a particularly good accordion lesson book, video, or other learning aid recently? Leave a comment and let us know.