John Whelan Trio
First Presbyterian Church
Santa Monica, CA
September 11, 2010
The John Whelan Trio‘s first stop a two-week West Coast tour fell on the eve of the Fall Equinox Festival, the replacement for the long-running Summer Solstice Festival. It was held in a lovely church setting in downtown Santa Monica, California. Joining the legendary accordion player were fiddler/vocalist Charlene Adzima and multi-instrumentalist Zac Leger, two musicians in their mid-twenties who bring a youthful enthusiasm to the group.
Though there wasn’t much time for rehearsal, Adzima and Leger had played together many times before, and the opening set of tunes showed a nice chemistry among the trio. Next up was a lovely song in Gaelic, “It’s Not the Day,” sung by Charlene, followed by a set of jigs taken from Whelan’s “From the Heart” recordings, featuring strong bouzouki backing by Leger. A set of hornpipes slowed things down a bit, and then Whelan left the stage to the two younger musicians.
By this time it was obvious that this wasn’t Whelan and his backing band, but a real sharing between all three musicians. Charlene sang another song with Zac backing her on guitar, but a lyric fumble led to an awkward moment as she struggled to come up with the next line. It was followed by a laugh, and all was forgiven when Whelan returned to lead the group through a fast set of reels.
It was time for Whelan to take the spotlight alone. On “From The Heart” (a tune he wrote for his wife), he demonstrated why he’s considered one of the finest accordion players ever: Few can play with the same emotion or joyous enthusiasm.
He brought Zac amd Charlene back to the stage and finished the night with a song from Zac (“Seven Curses”) that featured some nice duets between fiddle and accordion. At 45 minutes, the set cut off just about the time things really began to jell, leaving the audiences wanting more.
The closing set was by the Vermont-based band Nightingale, who were also in town to play at the festival the next day. Jeremiah McLane (accordion, piano), Keith Murphy (guitar, foot percussion, vocals), and Becky Tracy (fiddle) are best when they stick to up-tempo Québécois music like the opening two selections this night; the traditional Canadian “The Blackfly Song”; or the closing set of Irish tunes with McLane on piano. Their own music, much of it taken from a new recording, was hit or miss.
The evening ended on a high note, with all the musicians returning to stage to play one large jam.
—Jim Lee (Simi Valley, CA)
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