John Whelan is fun. He has a vibrant sense of humor and the kind of musicality which turns his instrument, a humble two-row accordion, into an orchestra, albeit a small one. It’s the kind of thing that one expects of a person who was deemed the All-Ireland Accordion Champion seven times.
Whelan flicks his fingers over the keys with alacrity, playing medleys of jigs, waltzes, reels and polkas that bring people to their feet and out onto the dance floor or, at the very least, get them to clap along with the rhythms and tap their feet. Anyone of the folks who showed up at the Buffalo Irish Center on Friday night could tell you the same thing.
Then there’s violinist Genevieve Gillespie, Whelan’s young associate and a wizard with the bow, a sweet singer, and a talented step dancer. They’ve known each other since she was a child, and over the years he’s watched her progress to the point where she can now hold her own with him on the stage.
Between songs they bantered back and forth with an easy familiarity, him teasing her and her giving it back to him, but it was the way that they bounced off of each other musically that made the evening a special one.
There were solo spots that showcased their skills, but the bulk of their time was spent weaving their sounds together. The beginning part of the evening found them searching for a sonic blend that would let each strand of their playing stand out. Initially Whelan’s accordion was the stronger force, while Gillespie’s fiddle could be heard best when she kept to the instrument’s upper range. Then they seemed to work things out and a state of balance was reached in which the lines became distinct, staying out of each other’s way while driving the tunes in tandem.
The audience came into play a fair amount of the time because there were times when some of them rose out of their seats to take spins on the dance floor. Towards the end of the concert’s first half, there were even a few set dances, similar in some ways to square dancing, in which couples moved at the direction of a caller who barked commands about which steps to take.
For at least half an hour, bodies swirled around the dance floor in patterns, quickly changing partners and places, twirling and rushing past and around each other in a heady visual display. And all the time, Whelan and Gillespie kept the rhythms pulsing and the sounds graceful.
It also should be noted that the two will be holding a workshop today in the Dog Ears Bookstore, 688 Abbott Road, Buffalo, for people looking to improve their musical skills.
Onlookers are welcome.