Accordion guy Dan Newton puts the squeeze on les bons temps

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When you think of the accordion, what comes to mind? Be honest. Are you thinking Lawrence Welk? Terminally uncool polkas thumped out by maniacally grinning fellows in sateen vests and bad haircuts?

You may not be alone. Accordions have long had an image problem.

Como Park resident Dan Newton would like to change all that. Despite his all-American name, Newton has a Gallic inflection when it comes to the squeezebox. In addition to playing solo accordion, he leads a five-piece band called Dan Newton’s Café Accordion Orchestra. Although their repertoire includes plenty of outside influences, Café Accordion is what Newton calls “principally a musette band.” Musette, says Newton, is a “Parisian style based in folk music, with pop and gypsy influences.”

In other words, think Paris in the 1920s: Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, sidewalk cafes and—more recently—the soundtrack to the movie Hugo. “This,” says Newton, “is not your father’s accordion.”

Not unless your father was a French café musician, that is, who was familiar with Celtic, jazz, improv and just a touch of the manouche (aka, French gypsy) sound. “Musette captures so many styles,” says Newton, “It’s passionate but accessible. You can really nail down the melody and the beat.”

Café Accordion, which consists of guitar, violin or mandolin, bass and percussion, in addition to Newton’s accordion, plays every Tuesday evening at the Loring Pasta Bar in Minneapolis’ Dinkytown. The group is celebrating its 19th year together. The lead singer is fluent in French, but the group also performs Greek, Armenian and Russian songs among many others. “I sing in Spanish and Cajun French,” says Newton, “and we sometimes have a guest vocalist, Diane Jarvi, who can sing in 15 different languages.”

According to Newton, the international repertoire is further proof of the Parisian roots of the music. “Paris was quite an international place in the ’20s and ’30s,” he says, “and in the ’20s, when American jazz became available, the French went nuts for it.” Maybe that’s why Newton’s current favorite among the band’s numbers is an old American standard, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” by Gus Kahn, “played in café style.”

If Newton brings a folklorist’s appreciation to the ethnic flavors of his musical life, maybe that’s because folklore is where he began. Although he had played “lots of instruments” from boyhood on, he studied folklore at the University of Nebraska. The study may have given him an appreciation for the unifying myths and expressions that underlie seemingly disparate cultures, but when it came time to choose a career path, music proved to have more attractions than collecting folktales. He got a folk-arts residency playing music in local schools and never returned to finish his degree.

As for his musical influences, Newton says, “I grew up in a non-ethnic family” in Nebraska where he listened to the Beach Boys, the Doors, the Smothers Brothers, as well as the commercialized folk music of the era and—yes—Lawrence Welk. He credits his openness to the multi-flavored world of ethnic music to the lack of a specific family musical tradition. “Nobody told me there was a right and wrong way to play anything,” he says.

When Newton moved to Minnesota in 1987, he decided to narrow his focus musically. “I was interested in ethnic music and instruments of all kinds, but when I came to Minnesota I wanted to concentrate on just one instrument, the accordion.”

Why that one? “The accordion can be as expressive as the musician who’s using it,” he says. “It can convey any feeling you want.”

In 1988, he formed a New Orleans-style quintet “with a little Cajun and Zydeco added for extra spice,” the Rockin’ Pinecones. The band still gets together for an occasional reunion performance, but between the Café Accordion and his lively solo career, Newton doesn’t have a lot of extra time these days.

For Newton, music is a full-time gig. It’s also a family affair. After 20 years in the classroom, his wife, Elizabeth, left her first-grade classroom to become the business manager of Café Accordion. “She gave up a full-time career to book an accordion player,” says her grateful spouse. Newton also has a son who’s in his first year at the University of Minnesota. “He’s a music fan,” says Newton, “He loves playing and writing music. I don’t know if he’ll make it a career.”

Of his career, Newton says, “The band isn’t full-time, but I am. I do a lot of solo touring.” He has gone on the road with Prairie Home Companion, and he is a familiar musical presence with one of the area’s most interesting performing-arts hybrids, the Hippocrates Café. Founded and hosted by Dr. Jon Hallberg of the University of Minnesota, the Hippocrates is an ongoing exploration of medical topics in the context of music and drama. Actors read from a variety of sources—poems, novels, short stories, and scientific journals—while musicians perform instrumental interludes as the show examines a specific health care topic.

For Newton, the Hippocrates was the scene of a memorable musical encounter. The topic of the evening was the transformative nature of medical experiences. “How discovering an illness or being cured can change your life,” says Newton. He and local cellist Jacqueline Ultan were tasked with providing improvised musical commentary and segues between segments on heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

“I’d never worked with just an accordion and cello before,” he says. “I was a little hesitant, but it worked out better than I would have ever thought it could—even if I’d been confident.”

A performance piece on chronic illness might strike some as a stretch for a musician associated with a good-time instrument like the accordion, but Newton is unfazed. For one thing, he’s used to audiences who have reached the age where mortality is no longer a distant rumor. Since the heyday of French bal musette was in the first half of the 20th century, it’s not surprising that the band’s main demographic tends to skew toward middle age and beyond. “Lots of older people, they smile as soon as the accordion comes out of the box,” he says.

He adds that Café Accordion also sells its music online, where he hopes and believes that many of the buyers are young people who have realized that, “It doesn’t have to be the latest hit to be good.”

After all, he says, “Good music is timeless.”

You can find out more about Dan Newton’s Café Accordion Orchestra and hear its music at www.cafeaccordion.com. For Newton’s solo career, check out www.daddysqueeze.com.