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Boston’s Joe Derrane has just released his new album, Grove Lane on the Compass label. That is the last objective sentence you will read here on Joe Derrane.
Joe Derrane is the greatest button box player in the history of Irish music. His gentlemanly nature will be totally embarrassed by that sentence, but it is nonetheless true. And, there are some incredible box players in the history of the music. We spoke extensively with him in preparation for this article. Living at home on Grove Lane in Boston (hence the album’s title) the 80 year old still has the creative juices flowing, as witnessed by his authorship of seven of the tunes on this all-instrumental treat. He is accompanied beautifully by John McGann on guitar. John is a Professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and a multi-instrumentalist, as well as multiple national music award winner. Critically, the first few notes of the album answer the question of whether or not Joe is still the master of his instrument. Yes. Good Lord, yes.
The stuff of Joe’s life is legendary to anyone who loves Irish music. Boston born and raised (it is always fun to hear him pronounce any words ending in “r”), by the age of 14, he was playing in a variety of Irish settings, most notably the kitchen get-togethers known in Boston as “rackets”, and of course, the dance halls. Taught by another legend, Co. Cork’s Jerry O’Brien, Joe made the “famous 16” 78 sides in the 1940’s as a teenager. They set the Irish music world on its collective ear, and the journey began. Let’s condense this all. Looking back, it is some sort of epic, but at the time, it all seemed a natural progression. Joe played in the middle of a once thriving, but now dying scene for Irish dances in the halls of Boston, and by the late 1950’s the whole panorama was pretty dry. Gone. Every major city in America and Ireland experienced the same thing, really. Here is one of the secrets to the magic. Joe is a total musician. So, while working at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, he continued to play. Just not Irish. Going to the piano accordion and eventually keyboards, he kept right on growing in different musical settings. Even that faded, as the music scene kept changing. Joe, essentially, retired.
Then, two things happened. Rego records and Earle Hitchner. In the mid-90’s, Rego reissued two albums featuring Joe on those 78’s, as well as his friend and mentor, Jerry O’Brien. Not all that much happened. Studied, listened to closely and sold to real music fans, but really, not that much happened. Then, New York-based Irish music critic Hitchner heard the albums. He wrote about Joe, and hunted him down in Randolph, a suburb of Boston. Encouraged by Earle, Joe began working out. The champ was going to make a comeback. (Cue the Rocky music.) Following a lot of practice and the encouragement of his wife, Anne, Joe got ready. The comeback concert was at Wolf Trap, the famous summer musical setting in Virginia. Joe thought it would be sort of a hello/goodbye concert, and a fitting coda to his musical career. But, the audience decided something else. Simply put, the place went nuts and word exploded that Derrane was back. Not retired. Back. Wendy Newton at Green Linnet in Connecticut rushed to hire Joe to a recording contract. The word was out. Albums---this is his seventh---followed. Tours. Honors. Is anyone more honored than Joe in the music? Then, two years ago, Joe’s beloved treasure, and most important honor, Anne, passed. In losing her after 53 years, Joe faced all the choices any man in his situation faced. His voice still goes all soft when he speaks of her. But, a lot of that is very private. With that void created in his life, Joe obviously went back to the well for the other force that sustained him, in addition to his family and two children, Sheila and Joe, Jr.. The music. Still---and always---the music.
Determinedly, surely, carefully, Joe decided he wanted to do at least one more album. This time, it would be more of a solo effort. Well, not really solo. He reached out to long-time friend and musical soul mate, John McGann. The stage was set. The result is a paean to his music, his home street, and Anne. Many will argue that Anne’s Waltz is the best tune on the album. Or, is it Tango Derrane? That’s right, a tango! Full stride. Fancy Free is another composition. A schottische joined by the barndance, Grove Lane. Magic, all right.
“You know, I was thinking I wanted to do an album for some time. Really, I wanted to feature a lot of different aspects and potentials of the button box in a way I hadn’t before. Or, not to this extent. And, it is always fun to write more tunes! Having John McGann available is another big secret. He is just the best. We are totally simpatico musically. He knows exactly what to do, every time. He is really not my accompanist here. He is my partner. Just the best, really.” Always, the generosity of Joe’s spirit on display. Always.
Listen to McGann talk about it. “Playing with Joe in any setting is a thrill. Every time. Of course, he is technically brilliant. But he also plays with such conviction and emotion! The creativity just flies off of him. He makes you a better musician. He is so musically generous. So open and encouraging. He is such a lovely guy, and such an artistic force.”
You get the idea. Still, way at the back of a cynical mind, the thought may have lingered. Has he still got it? Is it still there? Is Joe still Joe? Well, probably not. He is better. Like all great and dynamic artists, he continues to grow. No status quo here. An ever broadening musical maturity and wisdom result in so many perfectly tasteful moments of musical insight and brilliance, the final result is to smile as you play the cd over and over. “I still feel so at home when I play. It is still a challenge. Still fun. I love this album, and the whole thing!” So do we.
How do you describe Joe Derrane? Still active. Still at the top of his form. Looking forward already to his next album. “None of us know what God has in store, but I still have some ideas for the next one. We’ll see.” We can’t wait.
You see, after writing about this music for 25 years, you hear a lot of wondrous musicians, and a lot of poseurs. You meet a lot of great people in the business, and a lot not so great. As in any profession, there are people who are real and true to the core. And, some not. Perhaps the best thing about Irish music is these performers like Joe who represent the best of a long musical tradition, and the best of Ireland. Much of it is gone now. Rushed off the stage by a 21st century world that often seems to be losing its way. But, there are still these people. The masters. Still miraculous players, still sharing a gentle and giving personality and talent that can only be Irish, really. Thank God, they are still here and still in the music. They are really what it is all about. Gentlemen and gentlewomen in the truest sense of the word. There aren’t many. But, they are still here. Brilliant, innovative and vital. See, here is the thing about Joe Derrane. Sure, he is a genius. Oh, that’s right. Let’s not fear the word. He is a musical genius. I’ve only met two in 46 years in and around the music. But, finally, Joe’s genius and musical gifts are secondary. Joe Derrane is a great man. And, the example of his life is the true inspiration. A master in every respect. Yes. A genius.
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