A who’s who of Newfoundland and Labrador music gathers Saturday to help accordion legend Frank Maher celebrate his 80th birthday
On a March afternoon, Frank Maher could be forgiven for not making it to his weekly jam session with friends at Rocket Bakery.
At 80 years old, he’s on the go so much and has recently been down with a cold, and it’s freezing outside, anyway.
It would take more than age or the sniffles to keep Maher down, though — and he would have been at his regular music session, had he not been snowed in and waiting for the plow.
Accordionist Frank Maher is turning 80 — so some friends and fans from the provincial music scene — a lot of friends and fans — are throwing him a little party. Maheriposa! goes ahead Saturday at the George Street United Church. — Photo courtesy Borealis Recording Company. (www.borealisrecords.com)
Maher’s lunchtime ad-hoc concerts at the downtown bakery are just for fun, a lot like Maher himself. He’s so playful, it’s hard to even get him to answer a serious question in an interview.
He doesn’t hesitate, though, when he speaks of how honoured he feels when it comes to a planned tribute concert to him, set to take place at George Street United Church in St. John’s this Saturday night, with an impressive list of performers, each of them dear to Maher’s heart: Jean Hewson; former Figgy Duff members Pamela Morgan and Dave Panting; Aaron Collis and Emilia Bartellas of The Dardanelles; Dave Penny; Russells in the Corner; Solid Ground; Stan Pickett and Andrew Lang; Christina Smith and Rick West.
“God love ’em all,” Maher said. “I feel very proud and very blessed, I’ll tell you that. I do so, to have people like that, after all my years. I’m a different generation altogether from them. I’m a different generation from their parents, even.”
Maher grew up in The Battery and, as a little child, would row out to American navy ships in the harbour in a small dory and play his harmonica for the U.S. sailors, who’d throw him down pennies.
As a teenager, he bought a four-stop, single-row accordion (“I couldn’t afford one before that,” he said), and learned to play, taught by his mother, the late Bridget Maher.
In the late 1950s, Maher was manager and bartender at the Harbour Inn downtown; a job he kept for 27 years, until the bar eventually burned down. The cause of the fire, Maher has joked, was his own “hot” music.
At the time of the fire, Maher had been playing on and off with Figgy Duff, but then joined the band full time and hit the road.
“I had always worked, because I had seven children and I couldn’t really feed seven children on playing the accordion,” he explained. “When the Harbour Inn burnt down, Figgy Duff were popular so I went with it for good then, until Noel Dinn died, and they gave it up.”
Dinn died of cancer in 1993.
Maher was on stage with the other members of Figgy Duff in 2008, during a series of reunion concerts.
Over the years, Maher has lent his talents to dozens of albums as a session player, and has performed with groups like The Plankerdown Band, The Planks, The Mahers Bahers, and more.
“The John White Band, the Newfoundland Kitchen Band, the Salvation Army Band — no, I’m only joking now,” he said, laughing.
Maher released his very first solo CD, “Mahervelous,” in 2005, at the age of 71, and it went on to earn two Canadian Folk Music Award nominations the following year.
He has been recognized for his music and contributions to the culture in this province and Atlantic Canada with the 2003 St. John’s Folk Arts Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2007 Stompin’ Tom Connors Award from the East Coast Music Association.
Besides his weekly session at the Rocket and his jams at The Ship on folk nights, Maher goes every Friday to the Mews Centre, where he plays with a group of like-minded seniors.
Maher, when asked what he hopes his legacy will be when the time comes for him to give up music, jokes that he wants to still be alive, first and foremost.
“I didn’t really teach anybody, but I’d like for somebody to say that they got something from me,” he explained.
Jean Hewson, longtime friend and member of The Mahers Bahers with Christina Smith and Rick West, is one of the organizer’s of the tribute concert.
“It is a celebration of his birthday — we’re really glad he got to 80, healthy and vibrant and energetic — and it’s an opportunity to thank him for the music he has put into our lives,” she said.
“He has a passion for music, no doubt, and he plays with a lot of energy and drive that hasn’t faded over the years. “He’s popular because he’s a wonderful person. Being a wonderful musician is one thing, but combine that with being generous, fun to be with, and open to performing and playing with people of all ages. Frank has something special.”
Called Maheriposa!, a take on the longtime Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario (at which Maher performed in 1985, with Émile Benoît and Jim Payne), the show will begin at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 and are available at O’Brien’s Music Store and Fred’s Records.
Maher thinks you should go — if not for him, for the other performers.
“Forget about me, come for the talent that’s going to be there. Never mind what it’s for; they’re going to be there and they’re going to be playing. They’re all fabulous players. Damn right they are.”