According to Johnny
Irish musician bridges old and new worlds
Johnny B. Connolly stands, darkly serious, on Portland's Broadway Bridge.
He's poised on the edge of international stardom, or at least as much stardom as a traditional Celtic button accordion player can command.
At age 27 Ñ his birthday was Jan. 26 Ñ he's already got a three-record contract with Green Linnet Records, the world's leading Celtic music label. The first album, illustrated with photographs shot on the Broadway Bridge and appropriately dubbed 'Bridgetown,' recently received a glowing review in Dublin's Irish Times. And now his band is opening at Berbati's Pan for Gaelic Storm, the below-decks band that went down with the ship in the movie 'Titanic.'
These are heady times for the handsome former Dubliner who has called Portland home since 1997.
Connolly's contract with Green Linnet came about as the result of a contact made by fellow Portland resident Kevin Burke.
'Kevin is a legendary Irish fiddler, one of the major, major musicians on our label,' company spokeswoman Judith Joiner says. 'Our owner told him, 'If you'll give us a recommendation, we'll go with it.' '
Teen music traveler
Burke did more than recommend Connolly: He joins him in playing on 'Bridgetown,' praised by The Irish Times for coupling French and
Irish musical traditions 'as though their DNA was culled from one gene pool.'
And, although Burke is known about town for his dry wit, he is effusive on the subject of Connolly.
'He's a great listener,' Burke says. 'Which is an odd thing to say about a musician. But it's very important to know what to listen for. He's very perceptive and mature, much more mature than I'm used to seeing in someone his age.'
Connolly is well aware of what Burke's backing means for his career. But, in fairness to him, he did not come to Portland an unknown. At age 15, he already was performing around Dublin with his cousins Tom and ƒamonn Doorley, later members of the internationally famous band Irish Danœ. And at 17, his dark, curly hair then flowing past his shoulders, he was touring Europe as the accordionist for the well-known Irish band Anam.
A recent Sacramento (Calif.) News & Review write-up of 'Bridgetown' describes Connolly's current playing as revealing a preference for emotion over speed.
'He is capable and wonderfully precise with fast danceable stuff,' the reviewer writes, 'but at his best with midtempo tunes like the three heavenly duets with fiddler Kevin Burke.
'In the solo 'The Heathery Glen' he evokes the lonesome beauty of the Scottish highlands, milking long sustained notes for their full power.'
Low-key but driven
For some people, hell could be defined as an hour spent listening to the accordion. Obviously, Connolly does not share that view. In fact, he's so enamored with it that his original instrument Ñ the whistle Ñ 'sort of got put aside' after he picked up an accordion at age 12.
In 1996, a 21-year-old Connolly brought his music across the pond to New York City.
'There's a great scene there, very welcoming,' he says. 'I had a great time there.'
That 'great time' lasted four months, until he went home for Christmas and hooked up with guitarist Aidan Brennan, another of the up-and-coming Irish musicians who, at least for a time, called Portland home.
'After New York, gigs were slow,' Connolly says. 'Aidan was finding the same thing.' So they came to Portland together.
While Brennan has moved on, Connolly Ñ like Burke Ñ has sunk roots here. When he's not on the road, he still plays with the band Cul an Ti (Gaelic for 'behind the house'), which he joined in 1998. And he and several friends recently bought a house in Northeast Portland.
'Portland's a great town to live in,' he says. 'Very strong music scene, regardless of style.' In fact, one of his favorite local groups is Foghorn Leghorn, which plays old-time rather than Irish music.
Chatting in Northeast Portland's Moon & Sixpence British Pub about the local music scene, Connolly comes across as charmingly low-key and unambitious. But Burke sees a more driven side to the young Dubliner.
'He spoke to me about wanting to do a recording,' Burke explains.
'It wasn't something he wanted to do; it was something he was going to do. He was quite definite.
'He's very determined,' Burke goes on. 'I've heard it said that some musicians are kind of flaky.' He laughs heartily. 'I can't say that about Johnny.'
As for Connolly's goal of being a solo accordionist in a world that thinks accordions went out with 'The Lawrence Welk Show,' Burke says, 'I'm pretty sure he's going to prove to people that it can be done.'