Born in Drimnagh, Dublin in 1948, James Keane took up the button accordion at age six, drawing his primary inspiration from his mother, father and uncles (musicians all) and the rich cultural legacy of their home counties of Longford and Clare. By the age of ten, he had become a fixture on the late 1950's Dublin traditional scene where he literally walked among the giants of the music - Seamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome, Sonny Brogan, Tommy Reck - and homed his stills under their guidance and artistry. While still in his early teens, James co-founded what would become, in a few short years, one of Ireland's most heralded music ensembles, the Castle Ceili Band.
Along with his brother, fiddler SeŠn Keane and flute player Mick O'Connor, he managed to assemble a roster of musicians that bridged three generations and whose names, today, seem to have been plucked directly from the annals of Irish music history Joe Ryan, John Dwyer, Liam Rowsome, Michael Tubridy, Bridie Lafferty and West Clare fiddler John Kelly, whose parallel commitment to both the Castle Ceili Band and Sean O Riadas Ceoltoiri Cualann (later to include Michael Tubridy and SeŠn Keane) created as noted writer and musician Fintan Vallely has termed it, "The Melting Pot from which the Chieftains would emerge."
In 1965, at the height of their popularity (when an appearance by the Castle guaranteed a sold out dance hall anywhere in the country) they won the All-Ireland Ceili Band Championship at the Fleadh Cheoil Na hEireann in Thurles, County Tipperary; an event that is still spoken of, in traditional circles, in fond and fabled remembrances.
The All-Ireland medal with the Castle, though, was not James' only success in championship competition. At a time when winning an All-Ireland title meant going head-to-head with other future legends of the music, he emerged victorious as a soloist on four occasions - three of which were consecutive wins in the senior accordion division - an achievement that has yet to be equaled.
With the coming of the Dublin folk revival of the mid-1960s, James' abilities, accomplishments and vast knowledge of the music thrust him into the role of musical mentor to a great number of his contemporaries - musicians who were now drawn back to their native culture and anxious to learn as much about its roots as they possibly could. Among those who have acknowledged James Keane's profound influence on their careers during that period are singer/guitarist/composer Paul Brady, multi-instrumentalist (now musicologist) Dr. Mick Moloney.
In 1967, a three week tour with accordionist Joe Burke, flute player Paddy Carty and the Loughrea Ceili band brought James to America for the first time and opened his eyes to the opportunities available to Irish musicians in the United States. He emigrated to New York a year later and for the next decade became a mainstay at the legendary John Barleycorn and other clubs on the Manhattan Irish scene. Concert appearances followed at such venues as The Felt Forum (in Madison Square Garden) and the world renown Carnegie Hall, where one of his performances prompted New York Times critic John S Wilson to write "best of all was James Keane, the accordionist, who swung through reels with such exciting drive that he virtually lifted the audience out of their seats."
Having been featured in Ireland on recordings with the Castle Ceili Band and on an anthology entitled "Live At The Embankment" where he was accompanied by Donal Lunny, James, during this early period in New York, made his first significant recordings as a solo artist - "The Irish Accordion of James Keane" (Rex Records) and "Sweet and Traditional Music Of Ireland," a compilation that launched Rego Records and also included tracks by Longford fiddle Paddy Reynolds and New York accordionist Charlie Mulvihill.
In 1980, James relocated to Halifax, Nova Scotia to shore up the instrumental side of the successful Irish ballad group Ryan's Fancy, with whom he toured, performed on television and , eventually, recorded three more albums . While still with the band, he returned briefly to the U.S to lay down tracks for what would become his second solo release, Roll Away The Reel World. Produced by Mick Moloney, the album reunited James with his brother SeŠn for their first performances together since 1968, when James emigrated to America and SeŠn was recruited by Paddy Moloney to join the then fledgling Chieftains.
When Ryan's Fancy went their separate ways, James returned to New York and toured for a time with Waterford born singer/guitarist/composer Robbie O'Connell (of the Clancy Bros). In 1968 he made his U.S. network televisions debut on NBC's "The Today Show" as part of the commemoration for the centenary of the Statue of Liberty and spent the balance of the eighties either in solo performance, in tandem with East Clare fiddle master Seamus Connolly or as a part of Dr. Mick Moloney's All-Star touring ensemble The Green Fields Of America.
In 1991, he returned home to Dublin , to great acclaim, for an historic public performance - his first there in twenty-three years. The occasion was the Dublin Traditional Music Festival and he was joined on-stage by Chieftains vocalist/bodhran player Kevin Conneff and, in a surprise last-minute appearance, his old friend Paul Brady. Not long after, he began a series of appearances (as both a performer and an presenter) on two shows broadcast by New York Public Television - the weekly music program "Irish eyes" and its current-affairs counterpart "Erin Focus" and in late 1993 returned to the studio (with producer Gabriel Donohue) to begin work on his third solo album. Released by Green Linnet in 1994, "That's The Spirit" (on which he was accompanied by Solas guitarist John Doyle) became an overwhelming critical success.
A hectic schedule for James in 1996 primarily in the recording studio saw the completion of a second album with John Doyle (as yet to be released) and a unique collaboration with author Sharon O'Connor on a project entitled "The Irish Isle," a book of "New Irish Cuisine" with any accompanying CD soundtrack, for which he produced and performed fourteen classic traditional melodies alongside his special guests Seamus Egan (on flute) Winifred Horan (on fiddle) and Sue Richards (on harp).
He also made two contributions to albums for the Kells Music Label - an outstanding eight-minute medley of reels for the Seamus Connolly-produced compilation "The Boston College Gaelic Roots Festival" and five newly recorded tracks for the album "Atlantic Wave," a remastered CD-release of the 1971 anthology "Sweet and Traditional Music of Ireland."
A concert that year at Virginia's Woftrap Performing Arts Center with piping legend (and former Dublin cohort) Paddy Keenan and a featured appearance in Ireland at Aonach Paddy O'Brien (an annual music festival for which he also served as keynote speaker) opened a floodgate of fond memories for James and planted in him the notion that, contrary to the old adage, in many meaningful ways, both physically and spiritually, you can indeed go home again.
In the Spring of 1997, he did just that and soon found himself in a recording studio in County Meath surrounded by old friends, new acquaintances and well-wishers alike. Among them were former Bothy Band fiddlers Paddy Glackin and Tommy Peoples, Planxty founding member Liam O'Flynn, Chieftains vocalist Kevin Conneff and Ireland's finest flute player Matt Molloy - an alumnus of all three of the aforementioned groups. Propelling the sessions with his in-studio accompaniment and behind-the-boards wizardry was producer Garry O'Briain (know also for his work with Skylark).
The stunning result is "With Friends Like These." James Keane's debut album for Shanachie Records - as warm and joyous a "Welcome Home" for an artist who has earned his place in both the history of the music and the hearts of the people who love it, as you'll likely ever hear.
You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.
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