Although John grew up near London in Dunstable, England, he was raised on the fiddle and pipe music of Ireland. Dunstable has a large Irish community, and his father, Denis, was from Ireland’s County Wexford. “Ours was a very traditional household,” John says. “My father didn’t have any major vices – his only addiction was to Irish music.” Denis Whelan carried a reel-to-reel tape recorder to many shows, collecting hours of live music. Songs of home elicited sentimental tears, even when the words were not in English. “It was not the words but the emotion of the music that moved me”.
At the age of 14, already a seasoned winner of numerous accordion championships, John recorded his first album, PRIDE OF WEXFORD. Named in honor of his father, PRIDE OF WEXFORD was no passing fancy – the album is still in print and selling steadily.
John in America
John’s artistry blossomed in America. He moved to the United States in 1980 and soon was performing with Riverdance fiddler Eileen Ivers in one of the most celebrated Irish duos of the decade. His solo album FROM THE HEART became a 1991 finalist in the Celtic/British Isles category of the National Association of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers (NAIRD) awards.
Meanwhile, John’s name was turning up on Narada recordings such as CELTIC ODYSSEY (1993) and CELTIC LEGACY (1995), two of Narada’s best-selling releases. In 1996 John signed with Narada and released his first solo album on the label, CELTIC REFLECTIONS.
John’s next release on the Narada label, CELTIC CROSSROADS, featured American country singing star Kathy Mattea and Nashville stalwarts Tim O’Brien and Jerry Douglas as well as such Celtic luminaries as singer Mary McLaughlin, multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and fiddler Johnny Cunningham. CELTIC CROSSROADS spent more than two months in the top 10 of Billboard’s World Music chart.
Birth of the John Whelan Band
In late 1997 John formed the JOHN WHELAN BAND. In 1998, the band enjoyed a milestone year, thrilling audiences at such major American music events as the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Washington Irish Folk Festival, as well as throughout Europe on a junket sponsored by Virgin Records, Narada’s parent label.
While touring and recording with the John Whelan Band, John appeared solo in the critically acclaimed “Once Upon An Accordion” North American tour. Additionally he appeared in his first motion picture Ride With The Devil directed by Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, Ice Storm); The Drowning Plains, based on a David Johnson story; and an untitled documentary by Johnson, featuring concert footage of John performing in Connecticut and Missouri.
John Whelan, 1998
John Whelan’s musical pursuits continued to expand with his 1998 album FLIRTING WITH THE EDGE. This world flavored mix showcased such diverse artists as Samite on kalimba and vocals, Latin guitarist Oscar Lopez, Celtic songstress Connie Dover and a dramatic vocal by longtime John Whelan fan Bernadette Peters.
Named Traditionalist of the Year by Irish Echo magazine in 1998, John won high praise from Celtic music authority Earle Hitchner, who wrote “As an instrumentalist, composer, producer, and arranger who brings both passion and playfulness to his music while respecting the tradition it’s rooted in. John Whelan has richly earned the Irish Echo’s highest honor for traditional music in 1998.”
John Whelan, 1999 – Come To Dance
In 1999 John released COME TO DANCE. This milestone album served notice to genre purists that the seven time All Ireland accordion champion was as instrumentally agile as ever. This work also reveals John’s innate understanding of a centuries-old repertoire. “This is me doing my thing – straight ahead music, solid rhythm and very little embellishment. The idea was not to showboat but to let the traditional melodies express themselves through the dance.”
COME TO DANCE was recorded live in John’s hometown church, St. Gabriel’s, in Milford, Connecticut. “There were no fixes, no second chances, no overdubs, everything is as live as it can be. Sometimes I would check the tracks by dancing to them. If the rhythm is there, if the feel is there, people will enjoy the music. It’s not that you wouldn’t play these tunes without somebody dancing, but you have to play them right for that dance to happen. If you played them differently the steps wouldn’t be right. You can play Sweet Of May anytime you want, but it has to be played a certain way for the dance to tell it’s story.”
Many of the tunes on COME TO DANCE have a personal significance for John. “The Concert Reel is a tune I played for my first All-Ireland championship and Father O’Flynn is the very first tune I ever learned to play. When you’re young and struggling to learn this music, you don’t have a full appreciation of the compositions. Now, many years later, I have a different outlook on what these tunes mean, what they represent to Irish music. They’re beautiful melodies – that’s why they’re still around.”
John Whelan, 2001 and beyond
The year 2001 has brought the latest in John’s releases CELTIC FIRE. This work centers on John’s passion to mentor young artists and carry the traditional roots of his music into the 21st Century. With CELTIC FIRE John has stoked the flames of this passion with an ensemble of some of the best young instrumentalists in Irish traditional music today – all from the United States.
“Working with these young players on CELTIC FIRE was a flashback to how I was treated and encouraged by artists like Paddy Taylor, a great flute player from Loughill, Limerick”. The carrying forth of the musical traditions of his roots comes naturally to John. In a sense, he is returning the favor extended to him in 1973 with THE PRIDE OF WEXFORD.
Ranging in age from 16 to 29, percussionist Paddy League, uilleann pipes, tin whistle and low whistled player Elliott Grasso, fiddlers Patrick Mangan and Jim Eagan, flute and tin whistle player Aran Alwell and guitarist Flynn Cohen certainly catch fire with John’s encouragement on this latest Whelan masterpiece. These talented young players join John and his longtime bassist Tom Wetmore on such rousing melodies of Irish traditional reels as Bucks of Arranmore and Sporting Paddy/John Dwyer’s/Galtee Rangers. They also downshift deftly into a sparkling pair of hornpipes and a magnificent slow waltz, Father, one of eight tunes John wrote expressly for this recording.
The sheer energy and mastery of their instruments, demonstrated by these young musicians on CELTIC FIRE is brought to life when one has the good fortune of being a part of the experience of a live performance by the JOHN WHELAN BAND.
Since FIRE, John has released CELTIC ROOTS (his newest NARADA album to date,) as well as a re-release of FROM THE HEART, completely remastered. 2002 has brought John’s old fans something new, and his new fans a taste of the old. He also took part in the APAP conference, showcasing the new acts he signed to represent, and the newest incarnation of the John Whelan Band. 2002 is a busy time for John and his associates!
While assuring fans that his Celtic allegiances remain firm, John continues to bring them new music as well. “If you open your ears and your mind you can appreciate my music for what it is, not what kind of music it is.” All these things – my childhood memories, my father’s love of music, the way I relate to an audience, the different styles I incorporate – are why I love to perform.”
John is currently touring with the JOHN WHELAN BAND as well as selected solo performances. For the most up to date information as to where the JOHN WHELAN BAND is performing visit our Tour Dates section.