By Earle Hitchner
Joining the illustrious company of Charlie Lennon, James Keane, Joe Derrane, Seamus Egan, and Joanie Madden is John Whelan, who, like them, has been selected as the Irish Echo’s Traditionalist of the Year.
Born in London to Irish-born parents but a resident of the U.S. since 1980, this gifted 39-year-old box player and music writer issued his finest solo recording in 1998, "Flirting With the Edge" (Narada), the Irish Echo’s sixth-best traditional album in last week’s top 10 list. Whelan produced and arranged or co-arranged the recording, which features nine tunes he composed outright and another seven he co-wrote with such artists as "Riverdance" fiddler Liz Knowles, Latin guitar virtuoso Oscar Lopez, and Ugandan singer and kalimba player Samite, all of whom also perform with Whelan. Other guests on "Flirting With the Edge" include Seamus Egan, Jerry O’Sullivan, former Kips Bay bandmates Pat Kilbride and Kinny Landrum, the House Band flutist John Skelton, and musical theater star Bernadette Peters, who delivered a compelling lead vocal on the traditional song "Dublin Lady."
The John Whelan Band
This past year also saw Whelan step out in front of his own group, featuring Liz Knowles on fiddle and viola, Robin Bullock on guitar, cittern, and mandolin, and Tom Wetmore on acoustic and electric bass. The John Whelan Band has played to enthusiastic reception at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and the Washington Irish Folk Festival, among many other major music events in 1998.
On his own, Whelan headed up the inaugural, critically praised "Once Upon an Accordion" tour of America with fellow squeeze masters Daniel Thonon of Ad Vielle Que Pourra and Chris Parkinson of the House Band. With his own group, Whelan shared the bill with vocalist/percussionist duo Vas, ex-Jefferson Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico, and West Coast experimental guitarist Buckethead on a successful tour of Europe sponsored by Virgin Records, the parent label for Narada.
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During the last 12 months, there were three motion pictures Whelan worked on or appeared in that are slated for release in 1999: "Ride With the Devil," directed by Ang Lee, who previously helmed "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm;" "The Drowning Plains," a story by David Johnson about three orphan boys, for which Whelan has been writing the soundtrack, and an untitled docudrama by Johnson about Celtic music that features concert footage of Whelan in Connecticut and Missouri.
On television, he was the focus of "John Whelan: A Celtic Seisiún," an hour-long documentary combining concert with recording studio footage, the latter shot in almost cinema verité style. Directed by Ron Ropriak, the documentary aired on CPTV, a public-television station based in Hartford, Conn. And this month Whelan will appear on American Celtic Television, based in Wharton, N.J., that attracts more than three million viewers.
Aside from his own solo album, Whelan performed on a number of other 1998 recordings. They include "Long Journey Home" (BMG Classics), the soundtrack masterminded by the Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney; David Kincaid’s "The Irish Volunteer" (Rykodisc); Robin Bullock’s "Between Earth & Sky" (Maggie’s Music); "The Celtic Fiddle of Liz Knowles" (Lyrichord); and "Celtic Treasure II: The Living Legacy of Turlough O’Carolan" (Narada).
For another Narada album, "Stories," Whelan composed, produced, and arranged "Lament for Heather," which his band performed on the recording.
"I wrote it for a 14-year-old girl whose spirit was so much stronger than her body," he said. "She died waiting for a double lung transplant." And Whelan produced, co-arranged, played on, and even lent his compositional skill to "The Other Side," a self-released album by Blackthorn, a popular trad-rock group in Philadelphia.
The appeal of Whelan’s compositions clearly rivals that of his accordion playing, for which he won seven All-Ireland championships. At this year’s Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the Canadian ice-dancing tandem of Sh’-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz beguiled a worldwide television audience with Irish stepdancing-flavored choreography set to Whelan’s "Louise," a melody he composed for his wife a few years ago. "The Broadstone Inn," a reel Whelan wrote in 1979 with Dublin banjo player Mick Kenny, was covered by the quartet Anam on their 1998 album "Riptide" (Green Linnet). And Bungle Rye, a band based in Augusta, Ga., came up with a rocking rendition of another Whelan tune, "Lorraine’s Waltz."
Seemingly tireless, the box player/composer who calls Milford, Conn., home appears on a Christmas album for Target department stores that also features Jerry O’Sullivan and Liz Knowles, and five tracks from Whelan can be found on another recording issued by Hallmark Cards and sold in many of its stores.
In addition, Whelan recently finished recording his sixth solo album — 20 tracks of hard-core Irish traditional playing in St. Gabriel’s Church, his home parish — that will be released by Narada in February. He continues to work on a book of his own compositions for Hal Leonard, the well-respected music print publisher, and gives occasional Irish music lessons to adult pupils in his hometown.
As an instrumentalist, composer, producer, and arranger who brings both passion and playfulness to his music while respecting the tradition it’s rooted in, John Whelan has richly earned the Irish Echo’s highest honor for traditional music in 1998.
Best of the rest
In last week’s Irish Echo you read about the top 10 Irish traditional albums of 1998. Here, as promised, are Nos. 11 through 20, culled from a long list of fine recordings. Included are three releases carried over from 1997.
(11) "Launching the Boat," by Síona (Doorla DL001).
(12) "The Quiet Glen," by Tommy Peoples (Tommy Peoples Publishing).
(13) "Sligo Fiddler," by John Vesey (VECD-SMPL).
(14) "Live at Winkles," by the Lahawns (Lahawn Music 001, 1997).
(15) "The Wyndy Turn," by Dan Healy and Ciaran O’Raghaillaigh (Dan Healy 001, 1997).
(16) "Ó Chicago go Carrachán," by Maidhc Dainín Ó Sé (Cló Iar-Chonnachta CIC 136).
(17) "Two for Two," by Laurence Nugent (Shanachie 78014).
(18) "Bushes & Briars," by Susan McKeown (Alula ALU 1008).
(19) "Live in Palma," by Dervish (Whirling Discs, 1997; released in U.S. on Kells Music, KM 9516).
(20) "The Orchard," by Seán Tyrrell (Long Walk Music LM 002).