When local promoter Pat McCullough decided to book a Denver installment of the Once Upon an Accordion tour last year, his associates thought he'd sprung a leak in his bellows. "When you tell people you're going to have a concert with a bunch of accordion players," McCullough says, "they look at you like you're out of your mind. But the turnout for the show was great. It was a lot of fun and a big success all the way around."
On February 11 McCullough is putting together another night of stomach-Steinway excitement when he brings the Twice Upon a Squeezebox tour to Swallow Hill Music Hall. This year's lineup includes another threesome of renowned button-pushers. Sandy Brechin is a Scottish upstart who plays with traditionalists Seelyhoo and with the kilt-fusion act Burach, while Niall Vallely is a concertina ace who performs in Ireland's folk revisers, Nomos. These two men will be joined by another concertina wizard, England's Alistair Anderson; the trio's hip application of their instruments is sure to shatter most people's perceptions of the button box.
But along the Front Range, such square-minded thinking has been under assault for some time. Long before the accordion took center stage in the Creole soul of John Magnie's late Subdudes, the brimstone rock of 16 Horsepower or in other local acts, the accordion was gaining respect.
For more than forty years, Robert Davine has been a professor of classical accordion at the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music. Along the way, he's put DU on the musical map with an instrument most people snicker over. "The accordion is an enigma," Davine admits, "and it's had a bum rap in this country. Most people don't understand it, and when they think of it, the first thing they think about is the polka. That's fine, but there's another face to it. On the other hand, the general public doesn't get a chance to see it in a different light, so I guess you can't blame them."
Davine has done his part to change that. Each quarter, his bachelor's and master's curriculums host up to a dozen aspiring accordionists who come from around the world to enroll in the Lamont's accordion-centered program, one of only three in the nation. Since its inception, the school has turned out a number of world-class players, including William Popp, now the solo accordionist with the Unites States Air Force Strings, which tours the globe on behalf of the U.S. State Department.
Before entering academia, Davine used the accordion in various campaigns of his own. He was a member of two NBC radio orchestras and also gigged with the Montovani Orchestra. While teaching at DU, he's worked with the Pittsburgh and Colorado symphonies, played in faraway lands and recorded two discs of classical accordion music for the Crystal label. That his chosen instrument adapts to such varied settings is part of its appeal. "The thing that's always fascinated me is its ability to blend with other instruments," Davine says. "Henry Mancini used the accordion in so many scores, and people didn't even know it was there. And it's an instrument that can be extremely expressive. For me," he adds, "playing the accordion has opened doors I never would have imagined."
Fort Collins resident Cheri Thurston can make a similar claim. In 1992 she ended a lifetime of behind-closed-doors squeezing when she founded the Closet Accordion Players of America. Today Thurston's group boasts more than 1,500 members from around the world, who count on CAPA for information on all things accordion. Thurston keeps her outed members up to date on the latest news with a quarterly newsletter. "We encourage people to come out of the closet and play proudly," Thurston says.
Thurston took up the accordion at age four, when her German-American father signed her up for lessons. A native of southern Colorado, she says many of the state's early players took a similar path, thanks to ancestors who immigrated to Colorado to work in the state's beet fields. But as she grew older, she watched her beloved instrument fall out of favor with her baby-boomer peers. "When I went away to college," she remembers, "guitars and rock music were in vogue, and I learned that the accordion wasn't very cool. I put it away for twenty years." When a friend encouraged her to dust off her accordion a few years ago, CAPA was born.
"We use humor to get people's attention," Thurston notes, "and then we make a serious point--that the accordion is really a wonderful instrument. You can play anything on it. It has a sound that you can't achieve with any other instrument, and it's very versatile. There are Cajun accordion players, accordions in rock bands, there's the Paris sound you hear in movies--we have classical players in our group that are absolutely phenomenal."
According to Thurston, more people are recognizing these merits. "I'm amazed by the growth since I started this group," Thurston says. "Dealerships around the country are reporting growing sales, and more and more people are looking for teachers. I think we had something to do with it," she chuckles. "And I think it was out of fashion for so long that now it's something new and cool to a lot of people. And as more bands use them, that helps the image, too. I have hopes," she adds, "that someday someone like Tom Cruise or Michelle Pfeiffer will take up the accordion. Then it will be really popular."
Twice Upon a Squeezebox, Masters of the Accordion & Concertina, February 11, 8 p.m., Swallow Hill Music Hall, 71 East Yale Street, $15, 303-777-0502.