Accordion to Whom?

To most stateside music lovers, the idea of a road show starring three accordion players conjures up images of Geritol-chugging seniors playing polkas to nodding retirement-home residents. Even here in Denver, where the instrument stars in the rousing local acts 16 Horsepower and Slim Cessna's Auto Club, such a bill is unlikely to raise temperatures. But these preconceptions are outdated--and the three men behind the Once Upon an Accordion tour hope their efforts will result in some musical revisionism.

John Whelan, Chris Parkinson and Daniel Thonon--critically acclaimed international musicians who are taking the keyboard-free, button-box version of the accordion where it's never been before--hardly fit the usual stereotypes. Even Whelan's onstage wardrobe shatters cliches. No checkerboard suits and fat ties for him: He plays clad from head to foot in black leather.

"All accordion players are cool," says Whelan, speaking on a cell phone from his Cadillac the day after the tour's successful kickoff. As he drives himself, Parkinson and Thonon to the next gig, he notes, "That's what somebody said last night during our show. It's funny, because most accordion players that I know have been entrepreneurs in their own way, and leading kind of people."

Nonetheless, Whelan knows that he must fight to overcome the accordion's staid reputation, particularly in the U.S. "It's like fighting tooth and nail in America," he acknowledges. "But I think it's coming around and getting the respect it deserves now. And people like us are trying to do what we can to show the depth of the instrument and what it can do and bring that across to people at the shows." He adds with a laugh, "Although I don't think anybody has been brave enough to propose something like this tour before."

Over the years, Whelan has logged many a mile while spreading the accordion gospel. Born in England to Irish parents in 1959, he first picked up the instrument when he was eleven, winning the All-Britain and All-Ireland accordion awards over the next three years. He started recording at age fourteen, releasing Pride of Wexford, which is still selling steadily two decades after its release. In 1980 Whelan moved to the States, and since then he's recorded with fiddler Eileen Ivers (whose chops embellish the hugely popular Riverdance soundtrack) and played on numerous albums with the Kips Ceili Band, a Green Linnet signee. He's also made a number of solo recordings, including the 1996 release Celtic Crossroads, issued on the Narada label.

This last disc is a refreshing genre-bender that showcases the stirring charm and poignance of the accordion in a noticeably updated setting. The music is firmly based on the sounds of yore, but because Whelan is not averse to dipping his toe into newer waters, he is able to operate in an expanded sonic environment. The result is accordion-centered world music, which makes sense considering Whelan's far-flung performance schedule. "I consider myself a world traveler in a sense--almost like a tinker, traveling around the world playing with different musicians. We do a lot of festivals with musicians from different parts of the world and different genres, and we always end up in jam somewhere, doing a cross-cultural thing backstage. You know, on some of my stuff, the melodies are actually hardcore traditional, but what surrounds them is what makes them more contemporary and accessible to people who are not Irish or French or British."

Does stepping across these musical borders offend musical xenophobes? "I think that's less of a problem than it used to be," claims Whelan, whose next disc of global fare, due in February, features a cameo by actress/songstress Bernadette Peters. "In the beginning it was certainly frowned upon, but the purists are beginning to realize that you have to go with the times, and that generations change, and that the heart of the music is still there. And that's what's important."

For Parkinson, an Englishman best known for founding an outfit called the House Band, the blending of forms makes perfect sense. "It's a style of music that I grew up with when I started playing on the harmonica," he points out. "When I was four or five, I started playing Irish music and also anything from the radio and popular music. I was playing 'The Irish Wash Woman' and also 'The Man From Laramie.' It's always been a mixture of music to me; anything goes, really. We tend to play a mixture of styles, a cross between European and maybe Irish, with a bit of jazz and Cajun thrown in. It's a mongrel."

Thonon, a Frenchman who leads Montreal's Ad Viel Que Porra and writes music for Cirque du Soleil, contributes yet another flavor. "I play a French cross-finger style technique, like Chris, that allows you to play in a more romantic way than you would do if you were playing on only one row. The music I play is lots of slow stuff, and fast stuff too, influenced by early music, like from the eighteenth century, and even medieval music. That's because basically I was a classical musician; I'm a harpsichord player by trade."

The accordion, Thonon continues, "is really a national instrument in France, but it hasn't been all the time. It used to be until the end of the last war, and then it became very tacky to play the accordion, because so many musicians started playing it in a very commercial way, with terrible sounds and terrible music. And then lately, for the last ten years or so, it came back, because people realized that we were also playing jazz and all kinds of different music and all kinds of traditional music, too. Now it's very hip to play the accordion. You can't find a rock group without an accordion now in Europe."

Whelan is optimistic that this will eventually be the case in his adopted homeland. But until that fine day, he hopes that his troupe (which is supplemented by guitarist and bouzouki ace Robin Bullock, a member of Whelan's New York-based band who's the lone American on the jaunt) will be able to convince people that the belly-bellows can do more than either Myron Floren or "Weird" Al Yankovic ever imagined. In his view, musicians may think they're being rebels when they're playing Les Pauls through Marshall stacks, but they're actually conforming. "To do it with an accordion, though--that's something else."

Once Upon an Accordion, with John Whelan, Daniel Thonon, Chris Parkinson and Robin Bullock. 8 p.m. Friday, January 23, Cameron Church, 1600 South Pearl Street, $15, 830-TIXS; group rate available at 777-0502.


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