By Sonjie Johnson
It’s a clever and evocative nickname for a musician – especially fitting for Dan Newton, a multitalented performer and Como Park resident, best known as the creator of the Café Accordion Orchestra he established 30 years ago. Typically associated with French music played in the streets, cafes, and dance halls of Paris, the Orchestra’s current repertoire goes far beyond the typical waltz and polka. CAO is billed as “an eclectic mix of French musette, vintage swing, and Latin rhythms.” Not many bands could successfully perform at Polka Fest at Iron World and the Twin Cities Jazz Festival in the same weekend.
Dan is a full-time musician. He plays in three bands besides the Cafe Accordion Orchestra, sits in with visiting musicians and appeared as a guest on Prairie Home Companion several times. After 30 years of playing music around the area, his work has been viewed, listened to, and danced to by countless fans. His wife, Elizabeth Rowan, regularly performs with Dan on accordion and percussion.
Dan has bumped shoulders with serendipity frequently in his musical journey. As a kid in Lincoln, NE, he played piano by ear, sang in the choir, acted in school theater, and was thrilled when he learned to play ”Let it Be” by the Beatles in junior high. Inquisitive and musically precocious, Dan was in several bands and played a variety of instruments – guitar, mandolin, fiddle, dulcimer, recorders – pretty much anything that made music. He preferred the piano, but pianos don’t travel easily. Enter the accordion, an ultimately transportable instrument. An Arts grant awarded while he attended the U of N in Omaha set him firmly on the path to a musical career.
Another serendipitous hiccup in his career sent him in new directions. Snowed in in Omaha with The Irish Brigade, a folk band from St. Paul, Dan spent several days playing with them. They invited him to join the group and he moved to the Twin Cities in 1987. He formed CAO in 1993.
In the 1980’s Dan started playing in care centers and senior communities, gigs that remain a musical mainstay. At first, he played songs from the 1930s, like “You Are My Sunshine.” The audience loves to request songs and today Dan’s musical menu spans over 100 years- 20s and 30s swing and big band numbers, “Bye Bye Blackbird” from the 1940s, “Blueberry Hill” and “Good Night Irene” from the 50s, all the way to The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and show time favorites today. He offered zoom performances during the pandemic.
Dan’s musical exploration continues to be a work in progress. He describes “taking a little here, a little there,” to improvise and integrate European, Latin American and Parisian melodies into the Café Accordion’s performances.
“Around the World in 80 minutes,” their next performance, will be at the Crooners Lounge & Supper Club in Fridley on Thursday, August 10th . The show features 17 tunes from 17 countries. It opened on August 2nd , at the Dakota Jazz Club in Mpls.
As we packed up to leave, I thought of one more question. “Is there a most memorable performance?” I asked.
“One made me tear-up,” he said. “My first live performance after the pandemic was played right here at the pavilion. 700 or 800 people showed up. That was a night to remember.”
- Sunday, August 6 @ 6pm Daddy Squeeze @ Waldmann Brewery, St. Paul
- Aug 10- CAO “Around the World in 80 Minutes” @ Crooners, Fridley, MN 7pm
- Aug 11- Pat Donohue & Prairie All Stars @ Silver Bay, MN 7:30pm
- Aug 28 & 29 – Honky Tonk Jump @ State Fair, West End Stage 4,5,& 6pm
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