James Keane on Apple Music

James Keane

With the rich musical traditions of the Irish counties of Longford and Clare all around him and a family as engrossed with music as any in this country, James Keane was learning button accordion at an age when most children are learning to simply do up their buttons. Six years old is early to start playing music, even among various legends of players who started out as mere sprites. But by the age of ten, Keane was already something of a fixture on the Dublin music scene, following in the footsteps of many great players and sometimes even suffering them stepping on his feet because he was too little for them to see him. Players such as Seamus Ennis, Leo Rowome, Sonny Brogan, and Tommy Reck helped him get started on the course that would lead to an outstanding career in this genre. As a teenager, he was the co-founder of the Castle Ceili Band along with his brother, fiddler Sean Keane, and flutist Mick O'Connor, not to be mistaken with the younger banjoist and mandolinist of the same name. This group was one of the most popular Irish bands in the '60s and won the All-Ireland band championship held in Thurles in the county of Tipperary in 1965. Keane himself would outdo his bandmates in the department of contest winnings. He won as soloist for four consecutive years, a record that has yet to be beat by any other player. The Castle Ceili Band served as a proving ground and training experience for many young Irish players, among them, fiddler John Kelly, who would eventually lure away brother Sean to form a little Irish band that went on to become the most famous in the world, the Chieftains. In the meantime, James was hardly lying around in the shamrocks. In 1967, he toured the United States for the first time, in a trio featuring accordion player Joe Burke and flutist Paddy Carty. He was not prepared for the overwhelming reception this band, entitled the Loughrea Ceili Band, would receive. He realized the U.S. was more of a hotbed of Irish music activity than he ever thought possible, and relocated there the following year. In his New York City home, he became a regular player at the John Barleycorn club back in the days before discos started putting Irish pubs out of business. He certainly wasn't stuck playing in clubs forever, anyway, and was soon on-stage at both the Felt Forum and Carnegie Hall. After much experience recording as a sideman and member of various bands, he began work on his first record as a leader, eventually released on the Rex label under the name of The Irish Accordion of James Keane. In 1980, he relocated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in order to join the band Ryan's Fancy. This group toured, appeared on television, and recorded three albums. In the meantime, he finished his second solo album, Roll Away the Reel World, a project that reunited him with his brother Sean for the first time since the Chieftains had formed in 1968. James returned to New York City when the Halifax group broke up, and began working with Robbie O'Connell of the Clancy Brothers. He also performed solo quite a bit during the rest of that decade, as well as in duo with master fiddler Seamus Connolly, and as a member of the all-star Irish band Green Fields of America, under the leadership of Mick Moloney. In 1991, he returned to Dublin for the first time in 23 years to perform at the Dublin Traditional Music Festival, joined on-stage by some of the Chieftains as a last-minute surprise. His third solo album, That's the Spirit, was pressed by the Green Linnet label in 1994. A few years later, he began work on an unusual collaboration with author Sharon O'Connor, a proposed book of new Irish cuisine to be coupled with a CD of traditional music. Making appearances on a variety of compilations and Irish music samplers, he returned to Ireland once more in 1997 for another all-star get-together, which was released on Shanachie, and appropriately titled With Friends Like These. ~ Eugene Chadbourne

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