Saturday, June 9, 2012, 5:00pm
Pete Seeger Stage
I've been playing english concertina since 1970. My old classmate at Temple University, Chris Davala, now of Co.Sligo, Ireland, had seen Michael Cooney play one at a concert in Philadelphia, and said "let's get concertinas !" and the race was on. We placed an ad in his suburban paper and got several responses. Every "concertina" turned out to be a button accordion, as people figured that if it didn't have a piano keyboard it must be a concertina! I went home to Milwaukee to visit my parents at Christmas, and popped down to the Chicago Musicians Union music store and bought a CHEAPIE Bastari. I had been playing guitar for quite a while at the time, and simply "played guitar on the concertina," playing by ear and staring at the fingering chart. The loop between chart, eyes, ears and fingers burned slowly into my brain over that Christmas vacation, and what I learned forms the basis of all I do on the box today.
After graduation, I returned to Milwaukee to work in a record store that was going out of business. The "going out of business" part was central, because the deal between the clerks and the owner was that we could bring our own personal albums we no longer listened to in to trade for any of the stock. I got most of the catalog for Leader/Trailer, giving me the best traditional recordings of British Isles folk stuff. My favorite one was titled, "Northumberland Forever" by the High Level Ranters. I was so delighted with that sound that I called my musical partner from my last year in Philly, fiddler John Specker, and invited him to tour England with me, with Newcastle-on-Tyne as our destination.
We arrived in Newcastle on the morning of the day the Bridge Folk Club met, according to the liner notes on The Ranters recording. Showing total naivety, we went from the train station to the pub's parking lot without a clue of what to do next. We took out our instruments and began to play our repertoire of American Old Timey music to no one. There was a staircase leading from the Bridge level down to the Quayside along the river Tyne, and a potter who had a shop near the top liked what he heard and invited us in. We stayed the night with him and his lovely family. In the morning he mentioned that across the street there was a bagpipe museum in the Black Gate of the Castle of Newcastle, and that the new caretakers, Stefan and Liz Sobell would be good people to meet. We went over & my life took a major turn.
At that time, I was only using guitar on stage and had purchased a very rare Martin C-1 shortly before leaving Philadelphia. It was unusual in that it had an extremely thin arched top, a round sound hole, a moveable bridge, and a golden tailpiece. Bottom line was that Stefan immediately fell in love with an instrument that was new to me, and NOT for sale. BUT, he was a clever fellow who knew how to make stuff happen. For starters, he got John and I gigs galore all over the Northeast. We weren't particularly talented or considered unusual in the States, but in England we were REALLY different, to say the least. We got the girls, which was the reason for playing music from the get-go. In the end, Stefan got his guitar, and I got back all the money I paid Uncle Banjo in Philly for it AND Stefan's priceless Wheatstone Aeola english concertina. He went on to become THE guitar maker for the hot celtoid bands of the 70s, using my old C-1 as the template. I went on to considering myself a concertina player.
My musical tastes have evolved over the years, to include the typical concertina-focused idioms of Sea Music, Irish and Scottish Tunes, and general song accompaniment. At the end of last year, I resolved to immerse myself in a style completely new to me, English Country Dance. This music seems the perfect combination of folk and baroque, and ideal for both elegant dancing and "easy" listening background music.
My band, Nauticus, has been playing a folk-centric form of background music for several years, where we take the melodies of sea chanteys and forebitters, and set them in folk chamber music arrangements. This "Sweet Music of the Salt Sea" ends up to be quite pleasant AND easy for both musician and listener.