James Keane is a living legend.
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
Button accordion player James Keane is one of New York City’s great traditional musicians. He was born into the music and has spent his life upholding its artistry and virtue at every turn. This Sunday, April 29, the traditional music community will pay tribute to Keane’s life and legacy at the Irish American Center in Mineola, L.I., by assembling and recognizing the contributions he’s made to the music over the years. The event will also commemorate the 50th anniversary of his arrival to the United States and mark his 70th birthday. It promises to be an auspicious day for a true living legend.
Traditional musician aficionados will remember that Keane grew up a prodigious young player in Dublin in a family of musicians with Clare and Longford roots. Both of his parents were fiddle players, as was his brother Séan, who earned renown as the fiddle player in the Chieftains. Ever the firebrand, though, Keane exercised his virtuosity on the button accordion, cutting his teeth from a very young age at the heart of a scene that included legendary musicians like Séamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome, Tommy Reck, and Sonny Brogan. As he got older his legend only grew. His group, the great Castle Ceili Band, was renowned and his peer group included a rake of young musicians who today are household names, including Mick Moloney, Paul Brady, Christy Moore, and Dónal Lunny.
He left Ireland for New York in 1968 and hit the ground running. Here, he found firm footing in the musical community, at first with a residency at Manhattan’s John Barleycorn Pub. Since that first gig, he’s been a familiar and welcome face to all the local musicians, either in sessions or as a fixture of the set dancing community. (He was even a member of the Canadian ballad band Ryan’s Fancy in the early 1980s.) During this time, he distinguished himself as a recording artist through a number of albums that include “Sweet and Traditional Music of Ireland” (1971, with Paddy Reynolds and Charlie Mulvihill), ”The Irish Accordion of James Keane" (1972), "Roll Away the Reel World" (1980, with Séan Keane and Mick Moloney), "With Friends Like These" (1998, guests included Paddy Glackin, Matt Molloy, Tommy Peoples, Liam O'Flynn, and others), Sweeter as the Years Roll By (1999), Fingal (2008, with Randal Bays and Dáithí Sproule), and most recently, “Heir of the Dog” (2012).
The event in Mineola will be incredible. Many of the area’s best musicians will be coming out either to perform in Keane’s honor or to play for the céilí. Attendees can look forward to hearing Paraic Keane (fiddle), Victor Cunneen (singer and guitar), John Nolan (button accordion), Margie Mulvihill (flute), John Reynolds (fiddle), Patty Furlong (button accordion), Brian Conway (fiddle), Rose (fiddle) & Kieran Flanagan (piano), Séagda Coyle (button accordion), Jake James (fiddle), Mary Kate Carolan (flute), Brendan Fahey (drums), Brendan Dolan (piano), Sean Quinn (fiddle), Dan Gurney (button accordion), Christina Dolphin (flute), Cillian Vallely & Ivan Goff (uilleann pipes), Donie Carroll (singer and guitar), Don Meade (banjo and fiddle), and yours truly, Daniel Neely (banjo). The musical outpouring will be something to behold.
However, the big news on the day will be the presence of three very special guests coming over from Ireland to help participate in the celebration. Mairead Casey, the brilliant sean nós dancer will make the trek, as will legendary flute players Michael Tubridy and Mick O’Connor. Casey is Keane’s cousin and has been dancing to his music for years. Tubridy and O’Connor founded the storied Castle Ceili Band with Keane and together led the group to All-Ireland Champion honors in 1965. It is indeed rare that these four, who have so much history together, are able to get together and that it will happen on Sunday makes the event a most momentous occasion.
The tribute to James Keane will be a very special day of music and reflection on a life lived in the tradition. The music and craic will be off the charts! Doors will open at 2:00, the concert will begin at 3:00 and run until 5:00. Food will be served from 5:00-6:00 and will be followed by an all-star céilí from 6:00-8:00. To learn more and book your ticket in advance, visit tinyurl.com/JamesKeaneTribute. See you there!