Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

They say everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day; at the very least, I hope everyone gets to hear a little Irish music today. If you aren’t headed to one of the Irish-themed events on our calendar or in your area, here are a few Irish accordionists who can provide the soundtrack to your day:

  • Joe Burke
    Hailing from East Galway, Burke sparked a revival of interest in Irish accordion music in the early 1960s. Influenced by early players like Paddy O’Brien and Joe Cooley, Burke’s masterful playing, live performances, and charm have established him as a living legend of Irish music.
    Joe Burke: The Morning Mist mp3
  • Sharon Shannon
    Sharon is a traditional musician in the loosest sense of the word; her influences are all ‘traditional’ but from various parts of the globe. Incorporating Portuguese, French Canadian, and Scottish influences, her 1991 debut album is the best-selling traditional Irish music album ever.
    Sharon Shannon: Blackbird mp3
  • Joe Derrane
    Born in Boston to Irish immigrant parents, Joe Derrane recorded a series of 78rpm records in the late 1940s that stunned the Irish music world with their unique styling, power, and flawless technique. After a 40-year hiatus from the button box, Derrane is again wowing audiences and received an NEA National Heritage Fellow award in 2004.

Squeezin’ at SXSW 2008

SXSW Music 2008The South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival kicked off in Austin today and, with hundreds of artists performing at over eighty venues, there are plenty of accordions in the mix. As we’ve done in previous years, here’s a quick look at some performers that may have flown under your radar:

There’ll also be a number of accordion-toting bands performing that we’ve covered here before, including DeVotchKa, Pistolera, Bowerbirds, Great Lakes Myth Society, The Felice Brothers and many others.

There are few places where you can hear so many excellent artists in one place, so if you’re anywhere near Austin this week — on your way to the National Accordion Association convention in Richardson, perhaps? — stop in, have a drink, and meet your new favorite band.

The Adventures of the Felice Brothers

I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz lately about the Felice Brothers, three brothers (and a traveling dice player named Christmas… seriously) from upstate New York who play rough and tumble American roots music. They started out busking in the NYC subway and touring in a “short” school bus, but now they’re wowing critics and drawing comparisons to Dylan, Springsteen, and the Band. Not too shabby for a band whose self-titled debut just came out today.

They may not live up the comparisons yet, but make no mistake, this is honest, hearty, gritty music. You can hear James Felice’s excellent accordion all over their new album; my favorite track is the shuffling “Frankie’s Gun”:

Johnny Vadnal Passes Away

Legendary Cleveland-style polka band leader and accordionist Johnny Vadnal passed away yesterday at the age of 84. Vadnal was the first polka band leader to have his own major market television show, performing every Sunday afternoon on WEWS Channel 5 in Cleveland from 1949 to 1961. In 1949, Vadnal won the title of “Cleveland’s Polka King” in a vote held by a local radio station.

A prolific songwriter, Vadnal penned such polka classics as “Yes, My Dear”, “No Beer on Sunday”, “Wayside Polka” and many others. Here’s Johnny and his band performing one of his later hits — written for his wife — “My Alice Waltz”:

Klucevsek and Bern: Dueling Accordions

Guy Klucevsek and Alan BernGuy Klucevsek and Alan Bern have long been in the vanguard of contemporary accordion music; Klucevsek with his background in classical and (often whimsical) avant-garde music and Bern with his work in world music, particularly the jazz/klezmer ensemble Brave Old World. Last year, the pair released their second album together, Notefalls; I don’t have it yet, but I’ve long been a fan of their 2001 release, Accordance. In a recent interview, Klucevsek explains his attraction to the sound of accordions playing together:

“The accordions are never exactly in tune with each other. It’s a little raw and — I don’t know if ugly’s the right word — a little dirty… It’s always going to have a little bit of dirt on it when you have more than one accordion, and the dirt in music is what I really find interesting.”

Klucevsek and Bern will be playing a handful of shows together on the East Coast over the next two weeks, starting with a performance in Philadelphia on Friday night. Check our calendar for more information.

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Quick Links: Profiles in Courage

Maybe it’s a testament to the joy they spread, but newspapers love talking about accordion players. It seems like I stumble across a glowing feature on a local accordionist almost every day. Here are a few I found this week:

  • Steve Albini and the Accordion: That’s Amoré
    The Marin Independent Journal profiles Steve Albini, a singer/accordionist with a penchant for Italian tunes. After a brief career detour (he joined the priesthood), Albini now plays clubs and restaurants throughout the Bay Area.
  • Musician Played for a Hungry Crowd
    Unfortunately, some of the profiles are obituaries, as is the case with this tribute to Barto Ungaretti, a popular strolling accordionist at the Italian Village restaurant in Chicago. Regulars would often request him to come in and play even on his nights off. “We’d always rev him up, give him a little more amaretto… Especially on those cold nights.”
  • It’s Happy Music
    Elba, Nebraska, recently held it’s annual “Kolache Shoot-Out” and where there are kolaches, there’s polka music. The soundtrack was provided by the Friends Czech Band, featuring 75-year-old Eddie Stepanek on accordion.

Canadian Polka Showdown

Today’s Toronto Star has a feature on saxophonist John Gora and accordionist Walter Ostanek, the two Canadian artists nominated for Best Polka Album at this year’s Grammys. The article plays up the good-natured rivalry between the pair — Gora has been nominated four times but never won, Ostanek has been nominated 20 times and won three times — but also suggests that polka won’t be part of the Grammys much longer. According to Ostanek:

“Everyone in the polka business is wondering how long (the Grammy polka category) can last… Polka will never die, but no one makes a living at it. It’s music you play for the love of it. It’s for parties and good times, and it will always have a place in people’s lives. But it’s for weekend warriors now.”

While it’d be sad to see the category go — and I don’t think it will; the Grammys seem more preoccupied with adding rather than removing categories at this point — I agree that polka will survive just fine without it. As long as there are parties, beer, and accordions in close proximity, there will be polkas.

Milen Slavov Teaches Anytime, Anywhere

Milen SlavovBulgaria seems to have no shortage of great accordionists and Milen Slavov is one of the brightest lights in Balkan traditional and contemporary music. He moved to America in 1997 and currently performs, composes, produces, and teaches throughout the United States and Canada. I know a few of our readers saw him perform with the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble at the International Accordion Festival in San Antonio last year.

We’ve seen some online accordion lesson courses before, but nothing quite like the ones that Milen is currently offering through his website. He offers both custom audio (he’ll send you an MP3) and custom video lessons based around one of four subjects: ornaments in Bulgarian music, Bulgarian/Balkan piano accordion music, phrases and techniques, or improvisation. Even cooler, though, you can schedule face-to-face lessons to be conducted via webcam.

Normally, I’m a little skeptical of online video lessons because there’s no substitute for the feedback you get from a real teacher. But I’ll admit I’m intrigued by the possibility of taking lessons (even long-distance ones) from one of the world’s top accordionists. If anyone out there takes a lesson from Milen, let us know. I’d be really curious to hear how it goes.

Motion Trio at Carnegie Hall

Few artists challenge notions of what the accordion can or can’t do quite like Poland’s Motion Trio. Since 1996, Motion Trio has been taking its unorthodox playing techniques (bellows scraping, accentuated vibrato) and eclectic repertoire (jazz, rock, avant garde) from the streets where they first honed their skills to the concert hall. According to trio founder, Janusz Wojtarowicz:

“Our idea is to take this instrument, which is only thought about for weddings or polka or tango, and to make it as serious as any other classical instrument… We want to show the world that this is a versatile instrument that can play everything from contemporary classical music to folk or even avant garde music.”

Last Sunday, the trio played at Carnegie Hall in New York and I found an excellent clip of their performance online. It cuts off abruptly at the end, but you’ll get the idea — their playing is inspired, quirky, and totally captivating.

Polkaholics Anonymous

Last week, the Chicago Tribune had a fun piece on Chicago punk/polka band The Polkaholics. Fortified with Old Style and Old Spice, The Polkaholics recently celebrated their 10th anniversary and continue their quest to bring polkas rocking and screaming into the 21st century. Guitarist “Dandy” Don Hedeker (day job: professor of biostatistics!) describes the reaction of older polka fans who sometimes stumble upon their shows:

“Sometimes they’re excited to see what we’re doing with the music… Other times they think we’re the devil.”

The band’s latest CD, Ten Years to the Floor, is a live album highlighting the band’s unique brand of polka madness. As with anything punk, it’s more about the spirit and raw energy than musicianship — “we may miss a note, but we never miss a party” — and you can practically hear the beergarden and mosh pit coming together. This is a Polkaholics original from that album:

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