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All-star concert to celebrate living legend Joe Derrane

By Earle Hitchner

It's no exaggeration to say that the all-star concert celebration for Joe Derrane will be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

This special concert will honor the Boston-born button accordionist and composer for many reasons. They include his upcoming, superb new solo album, "Grove Lane," for Compass Records; his extraordinary, influential, Irish traditional music from 1946 to the late 1950s and then from 1994 to now; his impressive accrual of accolades culminating in the highest award of all, the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship in 2004; and his turning age 80--no mean milestone--this year.

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Scheduled to perform at the concert, where Joe Derrane himself will be the special guest of honor, are singer and multi-instrumentalist Mick Moloney, 10-time All-Ireland fiddle champion Seamus Connolly, 1986 All-Ireland senior button accordion champion Billy McComiskey, Grammy-nominated guitarist and singer John Doyle, 1986 All-Ireland senior fiddle champion Brian Conway, America's premier uilleann piper Jerry O'Sullivan, six-time All-Ireland button accordion champion John Whelan, Sliabh Notes' singer and guitarist Tommy O'Sullivan, former New York Ceili Band pianist Felix Dolan, Pride of New York pianist Brendan Dolan, guitarist and National Mandolin Champion John McGann, fiddler Rose Flanagan, flute and whistle player Margie Mulvihill, button accordionist Patty Furlong, and stepdancer Catriona Furlong.

Some surprise guests are also likely to appear on stage, and a very brief film documentary on Joe Derrane will open the concert.

All of the musicians and dancers will be performing gratis in tribute to Derrane, and the concert will double as a fund-raiser for the not-for-profit Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society. Based in Fairfield, Connecticut, STIMS over the years has presented high-quality, diverse Irish traditional music concerts and supplied grant money to support key Irish traditional music projects. Fittingly, concert proceeds will go to STIMS.

Since 1994, the year of his fabled comeback to performing Irish traditional music on the button accordion at Wolf Trap, Joe Derrane has been far more prolific in recording and composing than he was from 1946 to the late 1950s when he made all those classic 78-rpm recordings. "Give Us Another," issued in 1995, was his first post-comeback studio album, and he has made six more recordings over the past 15 years. "Grove Lane," which will be released by Compass Records this October, is his seventh and latest. Those seven studio albums constitute 103 tracks, and 24 of the tunes on them were composed by Derrane. In contrast, Joe Derrane's "Irish Accordion" (1993) and Joe Derrane and Jerry O'Brien's "Irish Accordion Masters" (1995), two CD reissue compilations of 78-rpm recordings, feature 32 tracks of Derrane's actual playing, and just one of the tunes on them, "Peter Feeney's Dream," was composed by Derrane.

The evidence is indisputable: Joe Derrane's second career as an Irish traditional button accordionist easily eclipses his first, which was monumental by itself. His second career began in retirement, at age 64, when he was not playing any music, Irish or otherwise, in public at all. The past 16 years of Joe Derrane's musical life are nothing short of miraculous and have raised his regional, national, and global profile exponentially. His influence, subtle or substantial, on young box players is apparent in every vertiginous triplet they execute on stage and recordings, and his post-comeback compositions have been covered by a host of other musicians, including Mayo button accordionist David Munnelly, Galway fiddler Frankie Gavin, and Cork-originated band North Cregg. Even tunes inaccurately credited to Derrane, usually bearing the umbrella title of "Joe Derrane's," indicate the enduring impact his own playing of them has had on other performers.

A fellow scribe once referred to me as "Derrane's Boswell," alluding to James Boswell's principal claim to fame as Samuel Johnson's biographer in the late 18th century. Though flattered and humbled by that comparison, I know the truth.

The one person most responsible for Joe Derrane's glorious re-emergence on the button box was Anne (nee Connaughton) Derrane, his Longford-born wife, who passed away at age 77 on July 18, 2008. It was she who encouraged and gently prodded her husband to keep practicing on the button accordion in preparation for Wolf Trap. It was she who refused to let his complaints and aching fingers deter him from realizing his dream of one last hurrah at that festival. It was she who told him he could do it. She believed in him, as she had throughout their 53-year marriage. Without Anne Derrane, who never once sought credit nor would even think to do so, Joe Derrane's outpouring of brilliant music on the button accordion at and after Wolf Trap would not have occurred.

Anne was the wife of a man who for 27 years had a full-time day job as a manager of workers' compensation at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and who for decades played music on weekends and sometimes also on weeknights. Joe pursued his passion for music with the knowledge that Anne understood how much it meant to him and how it defined him. Being the spouse of a musician is no easy role, yet Anne undertook it with grace, self-effacement, and love. It is why Joe composed and recorded three beautiful tunes for his wife: "Pastiche for Anne," the waltz "Aine" (Irish for "Anne"), and "Waltzing with Anne." All of his outright solo albums are explicitly dedicated to her.

The intended last hurrah at Wolf Trap in 1994 became instead the unintended first step of Joe Derrane's flourishing second career as an Irish traditional button accordionist of astonishing skill. And until her death, Anne was with him for every additional step he took.

At 7 p.m. on Sat., Nov. 13, at the Fairfield Theatre Company's Stage One, more than 15 outstanding performers will assemble to recognize Joe Derrane's achievements in the most effective way possible: through live music and dance. And in honoring Joe, they will be honoring Anne. I'll be emceeing, and I mention this concert now because it is expected to sell out fast. FTC's Stage One holds only about 200-220 people yet offers an intimate environment for this very special concert.

For ticket reservations, call the box office at 203-259-1036 between noon and 5 p.m. or visit www.fairfieldtheatre.org. For directions and other information, visit the same website. The Fairfield Theatre Company's Stage One is located at 70 Sanford St., Fairfield, CT 06824, and is very close to the Metro-North train station.

It promises to be a night no one present will ever forget.

 

 

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