What some of the
critics have to say
about John Williams

"The 10 year partnership of St. Paul guitar wizard Dean Magraw and Chicago concertina and button accordion player John Williams, formerly of the band Solas, is beautifully documented on the new CD "Raven". This is an Irish-music duo with seemingly limitless scope, adding jazz licks, ethereal film soundtrack sounds, neo-tango flourishes and jam-band fan corps to their mix of jigs, reels and airs. Magraw's original compositions are evocative standouts, as is "Perdition Piano Duet" a stark ballad Williams wrote for the film "Road to Perdition" - Terry Sauer, Star Tribune June 16, 2006.

Shit-faced renditions of "Danny Boy," rustic barn dances after the spud harvests, and scenes from 19th century costume dramas involving knee-bending jigs and tilt-a-whirl reels have all conspired to provide traditional Irish music with a reputation for sloppy exuberance. On Raven, Williams and Magraw fillet that stereotype with X-acto knife discipline and delicacy. Nevermore indeed.

There are jigs, faster-paced "slip jigs," and even a few note-melting reels among the 14 tracks, but the duo's interplay is ever alert to harmonic nuance, prioritizing the weave of tapestry over the gush of speed. Magraw dapples acoustic guitar notes like an aural impressionist against the sigh of Williams' squeezeboxes (push-button accordion and concertina), seamlessly fleshing tentative melodies into works of flush, ruddy splendor that aren't the least bit belabored. A moody, 53-second snippet, "Awakening," yields to "The Gypsy Queen," a barn dance tune that has the natural, effortless sway of a hammock when you first fall in. The serpentine, off-kilter rhythms leading off Magraw's jig, "Trippin in Eden," reenacts the forced savior faire of a potentially calamitous fall rescued by one's catlike grace. The firm-footed landing segues into the sprinter's stretch of Williams' furious but pristine reel, "The Mason's Men."

There are also more reflective changes of pace. "Perdition Piano Duet," from Williams' contribution from the Road to Perdition soundtrack (he's also the co-founder of the band Solas), has a prow for a forehead it broods so intensely. "Lianna," Magraw's tribute to the innocence of the child dancer, is a waltz as wistful as a solitary brunch at a Parisian cafe on a cloudy day. At times the duo's refined technique makes this slower fare all the more ponderous, and likewise sterilizes the more filigreed, uptempo numbers. But sometimes the two air their tapestry with sunny disposition, as on the incandescent "Kilnamona," a love song of gratitude by Magraw, whose lymphoma has been in remission now for the past four years. And a live performance of the giddy reel "Youenn" ends the disc with an exuberant (but still fastidious) flair. - Britt Robson, City Pages June 14, 2006

"Born of a long standing partnership stretching back over a decade, Raven is an album of assured, fully-realized performances that confidently, nonchalantly distort and dissolve boundaries.  Lesser musicians adhere righteously to the lines separating tradition from innovation, soloist from accompanist - but the duo of multi-instrumentalist John Williams and guitarist Dean Magraw interact so effortlessly, and draw from such a wide range of traditions and techniques, that existing borders cease to be relevant.  With one listen, the insight and instrumental skill that went into creating Raven, is immediately apparent.  Repeated listenings reveal a host of subtle musical undercurrents that speak of Williams and Magraw's profound empathy and endless musicianship." - editor, Amazon.com

"Raven is an outstanding new album by John Williams, concertina and accordion player extraordinaire, and the great guitarist Dean Magraw...a really fine one from Compass Records!" WGBH "Celtic Sojourn" with host Brian O'Donovan

Many people assume that Celtic Music is about resurrecting old tunes, but Raven proves Celtic music can be as new and vibrant as anything you'll hear on MTV." - Vintage Guitar Magazine

“Raven is a mindblower!  This CD takes things to another level.  Congratulations on another damn fine Irish CD.”   Terry O'Laughlin  WORT-FM

"Williams' style is fluid and totally indicative of his West Clare roots. Personal favorites are the last track featuring a rendition of "Pachelbel's Canon" that shows off outrageous finger work, the "Up In the Garret "set and the opening set of reels kicking off with "The New Custom House."

 Another must have release, Steam is an important indication as to the healthy state of traditional music in America from one of the world's great musicians. "

-Pat Simmonds
Greenman Review

"Irish Fest was quenched after John Williams and Dean Magraw, musical confluence of the Chicago and Shannon Rivers, collided on Milwaukee's shore. World Music musician John Williams is a third generation of button box playing men, who also plays flute, whistles, bodhran and piano.  Their tour de force playing left audiences dizzy. 

"Like James Joyce, their rhythms are complex and permeated with nuance."

- Jason Kuban
Irish American Post (Sept 2003)

" His two solo albums, the self-titled John Williams and Steam, are marvelous examples of inventive artistry within a traditional context."

-Garaud MacTaggart
Conscious Choice

"Steam is a wonderful album from Williams and demonstrates some of the best accordion and concertina playing on the market today... You'll play a lot of these tracks two or three times in a row before you're ready to move onto the next one!"


"John Williams was stunning, as usual.  This Chicago-based musician released a classic album entitled Steam a few years ago.  And, it still describes his playing!"  - Bill Margeson, Irish American News

Regarding Paul Newman and Tom Hanks' soundtrack performance of John's Perdition Piano Duet in Dreamworks' Chicago thriller Road to Perdition:

"closeness is beautifully and wordlessly conveyed in a quiet piano duet...a lovely thing." - Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

"...an intimate affecting coda to this powerful score." - Andrew Velez, Barnes & Noble.com

"Brillant, beautiful, brutal...the music in the film feels almost like a character itself." -Eric S. Elkins

The Celtic Connection
February 2002
Review of Steam

John Williams is in an enviable position. Many skilled Irish players would be overjoyed to have sensitive accompanist; on his new album “Steam”, Williams uses no fewer than five different guitarists. Dennis Cahill, Randal Bays, Dean Magraw, John  Doyle, and Jim DeWan all contribute backing to the accordion, concertina and flute of John Williams, making for a tour de force of Irish ensemble playing. This is definitely an album which showcases Williams’ skill on his various instruments; but at the same time, the arrangements are as carefully crafted as anything being recorded today.

 Williams is a skillful player, and for those who know only his accordion and concertina playing, his ability on the flute and whistle will come as a pleasant surprise.  Beyond the multi-instrumental skills, his arranging takes top honors on many of the tracks.  The first few sets showcase his playing in fairly standard setting – a set of reels backed by Dennis Cahill and Paul Donnelly (on bodhran), a lovely set of jigs featuring Liz Carroll on fiddle and Seamus Egan on banjo with Randal Bays on guitar.  Skillful, tasteful playing.

 The first real surprise is 4 tracks in. The ensemble is Williams on accordion, Dean Magraw on guitar, Larry Gray on Bass and Paul Wertico on percussion. Magraw is one of the finest and most creative players ever to put pick to string; his solo work has been compared to Michael Hedges, and his command of tone color is exceptional. Larry Gray is one of Chicago ’s top call jazz bassists, and Paul Wertico is best known as the drummer with the Pat Methany group. So what does this group of jazz/Irish/”new acoustic” players choose? “Miss Hamilton”, an 18th century harp piece, composed by Cornelius Lyons.  After my initial surprise, I realized the orchestration here is masterful. There is a tremendous sense of restraint, and the piece builds with very simple means. By adding reeds on the accordion, Williams makes the quartet sound almost orchestral. (I couldn’t help thinking of tango composer Astor Piazzolla’s skill at getting maximum color out of a small ensemble.)  Refreshing and lovely without being overly precious.

 Lest we think these players are only about slow pretty music, they tear it up on a set of reels later in the CD. Magraw lays down a percolating, pointillistic groove, the bass and drums come in, and they’re off! The final tune of the CD, “PJ’s Percurious Pachelbel Special” features Williams throwing in a myriad of high speed variations, leaving no doubt that his a master technician and not afraid to have some fun with the music.

 In stark contrast to this ensemble approach is a set of jigs with Williams on concertina and John Doyle on guitar. This is fine, creative duo playing. Doyle creates a perfect landscape for Williams concertina: his characteristic lift and harmonic choices, his way of holding onto a chord slightly longer than you would think here, and changing a bit earlier there. The concertina is clear and strong, no whistles and bells.  The second tune, “The Old Tipperary” has a slightly ambiguous phrasing, and the Johns exploit the weirdness, leaving you to wonder where the tune begins and ends but always enjoying the ride.

 This is a great album. The playing is tremendous, and the arrangements are stunning. (I also had fun playing the “name the backer game” by listening without the liner notes!) The variety of tunes – slow introspective sets and soundscapes, hell for leather reels and most everything in between shows a very well rounded player. Complaints?  The liner notes are nonexistent; some information about the tunes would be nice. There were times when the other players were a little too low in the mix – I would like to hear more of what Liz Carroll and Seamus Egan are doing on track 2, and I’d like Wertico’s drumming a bit more in front. The guitarists, though, were always recorded clearly and prominently, and this recording could serve as a “how-to” primer for the instrument – Bays’ Cahill, Doyle, and Magraw, reflect very different and very effective approaches to Irish guitar.

 I expected an album full of great Irish accordion playing.  Steam is full of great music, period. The diversity should please old fans and win new ones – go get a copy and work up your own head of ‘steam’!

Dale Wisely, Chiff & Fipple (chiffandfipple.com)

"Not content to be one of the best box players on the planet, John Williams steps out as a multi-instrumentalist on this new CD, demonstrating his skills on the flute, pennywhistle, and low whistle.  John's arrangements and choice of tunes are fresh and exciting, his box playing impeccable.  This one makes my very short list for Irish/Celtic CD for this year."

Amazon.com editorial review by Michael Simmons

John Williams is a button accordion and concertina player of rare ability, and on Steam, his second solo recording of traditional Irish dance tunes, he demonstrates it when, paradoxically, he plays with great restraint. Sure, there are some very lively sets of jigs, reels, and hornpipes here. The version of "John Brady's and the Hawk from Dundalk," which features fiddler Liz Carroll and banjoist Seamus Egan, is taken at a tempo that would tax even the quickest step dancer. And on "P.J.'s Pecurious Pachelbel Special," a witty take on the Canon in D, Williams includes some particularly fancy fingering. But it's on the slow tunes like "Miss Hamilton," a lovely 18th-century harp melody, or "Seol Uileo Thoil and The Deer's March," an unusual blend of a lullaby and a march, that Williams shows his true gift. To play fast requires little more than nimble fingers, but to play slowly, and with the feeling that John Williams does, you need a profound understanding of the music that transcends technique. --Michael Simmons


New Age Voice
October 2001
Review of Steam

Multi-instrumentalist John Williams’ Steam, also on Green Linnet is a lively, spirited rendition of some of the best of Irish traditional music. Williams’ star studded backup group is comprised of Seamus Egan on banjo, fiddler Liz Carroll, Dennis Cahill on guitar, and others. Williams’ imaginative selection of tunes ranges from “Miss Hamilton,” and 18th century harp piece to “Paddy Canny’s Toast and Paddy Fahy’s,” a medley of slow reels.  The finale, of particular note, is a medley of fast-paced reels – “Within a Mile of Dublin/Sean Dorris’ Reel/P.J.’s Percurious Pachelbel Special.”

Irish American News by Bill Margeson
October 2001
Review of Steam

John Williams. Chicago. Terrific button box player. Steam. Don't you love the title? It is out on Green Linnet. We love it. Seems John knows everyone, and they all seem to be on this album. Formerly of Solas, John set out on his own a couple years ago due to a number of personal and professional reasons, so the rumors go. Anyway, he obviously left on a good note, as Solas founder Seamus Egan is here on some of the tunes, along with another Solas alumnus, John Doyle. John Doyle on guitar. Liz Carroll puts in a turn on the fiddle, as does Paul Donnelly on bodhran and Chicago whiz kid, Dennis Cahill on guitar. There are lots of others such as the ubiquitous Jim Dewan on guitar, and too many others to list. But there is a lovely feel to the whole thing. Really good players all obviously enjoying what they are doing. John also shows his usual flair on concertina and even a turn on the whistles! Brill. We love the sound on the concertina. There is a full and lovely variety on this all-instrumental gem. We love it and so will you. For us, the album crescendoes, as it should, on a REALLY hot hot last cut, a set of reels including Within a Mile of Dublin/Seany Dorris' Reel/P.J.'s Pecurious Pachelbel Special. This is for the trad fan that likes the variety and a sure hand at the wheel. Lovely. Rating: Three and a half harps (hint: You Williams fans can catch John at regular sessions at Tommy Nevins Pub in Evanston.

Amazon.com Review by Darin Kelly from Philadelphia, PA USA
"Where there's Steam, there's fire", September 10, 2001

"Fire in the kitchen" is a phrase the Irish use to describe a particularly remarkable performance or musician; On "Steam," the newest release from Irish-American accordion virtuoso John Williams, the glowing embers of divine musical inspiration and sublime elegance are visible far beyond Williams' Chicago skyline. Though Williams may have spent a great deal of his career being mistaken for his movie score composer and classical guitarist namesakes, his accomplishments and wide-ranging abilities place him in the pantheon of today's most important Traditional Irish musicians. Williams has certainly not missed a beat since his departure from Irish-American supergroup Solas, and the myriad of talents he displays on "Steam" suggest he may have been underutilized in that ensemble. While those familiar with Williams' fluid but dramatic style on the button accordion and Anglo concertina will be thrilled enough by his showing on those instruments, many might be surprised that he shows equal virtuosity on the Irish flute, whistles, and bodhran. On "Billy Brocker's/The Old Dudeen/The Night We Had The Goats", Williams moves his fingers deftly around a variety of high and low whistles, with Paul Donnelly's driving bodhran as sole accompaniment. Irish living legends Liz Carroll and John Doyle add timbral complexity and driving rhythm to Williams' flute on "Johnny O'Leary's/Patrick Maloney's Favorite", while he enriches the color of other sets with a lone whistle or two. But it is indeed on the accordion and concertina where he leaves his most indelible mark. Williams is one of those rare players whose sense of inner passion for and unity with the music is always evident in his soulful yet unabashedly energetic style of playing, be it a whirling dervish of a reel, a pulsating jig, an austere march, or an evocative slow air. Quite often, the contrasts can be jarring. Williams zips across the box with ferocity on the disc's first two rousing sets (reels and jigs, respectively), then turns on a dime into first a few slow reels and then a slow air-like harp transcription with astounding beauty and grace. Throughout the Irish tapestry that is "Steam," Williams weaves together traditional tunes, plus a few new compositions, into well-constructed and creatively orchestrated sets. They range from the rousing, pub-session atmosphere of "John Brady's/The Hawk From Dundalk" to the intimate, sparsely accompanied "Up In The Garrett/The Old Tipperary". Though Williams' heartfelt and marvelous playing is more than enough to make this disc essential, it doesn't hurt that he has surrounded himself with a who's who list of legendary musicians, Irish and otherwise: Carroll, Doyle, Seamus Egan, Dennis Cahill, guitar innovator Dean Magraw, and Pat Metheny Group alum Paul Wertico, among others. The recent resurgence of traditional Irish music has much more than Riverdance to thank for its existence; artists like John Williams have brought it back in to the general public's consciousness through, as written in the liner notes, "talent, grit, and empathy with the music." Hardly anywhere are these displayed more elegantly than on "Steam".

Amazon.com Review by Steve Forman of Venice, CA
August 16, 2000

The Essence of Traditional Irish Accordion  John Williams has crafted a quiet little miracle with his Green Linnet release; a music embracing the essence of twilight and mist woven of traditional melodies and memories. Throughout this collection there's a mood of mirth and longing evoking the mystical rural Ireland only imagined in America today. As a third generation Irish traditional musician Williams was born inheriting this cultural intuition. It's our luck that he's dedicated his life to developing the skill and sensitivity required for projecting these images with such clarity and authority. In the company of a handful of the world's most important contemporary Irish players including the legendary Micho Russell (tin whistle) and Martin Hayes (fiddle) the music floats from solo accordion airs to duets and full ensemble pieces supported gracefully by Eoin O'Neill (bouzouki) and the clean transparent guitar work of Randal Bays. Technically the CD is immaculate, beautifully recorded and packaged. This is the CD I give to friends who really want to understand exactly what it is I love about traditional Celtic music. John Williams has made something vital and timeless here, not to be overlooked.

Amazon.com review by "gatton" from Charlotte, NC
November 3, 1999

Fantastic squeeze box playing! This cd will make a believer of you.  I've never been much of a fan of the accordion. But John Williams (that's three I admire now) made a convert of me. His playing is extraordinary and undeniably celtic. Having heard this music played on so many different instruments (including the some which just don't work for the genre) the accordion excels in bringing out both the emotion and fun and excitement of this music. Makes so much sense after you hear someone like John Williams squeeze a few out for you. The way he flies across the buttons on the dance tunes and sweetens things up on the slower numbers makes this cd well worth picking up.

All in all, a great record for squeezebox skeptics. Especially if they're already a fan of Irish music. But this cd for a friend and make them a convert.

The Irish American Post June/July 1996
by Jill Baade

To witness the passion of a John Williams’ live performance is truly astounding. The depths of Williams’ gifts as an artist and musician are awesome. His playing seems to come from beyond him, as if the accordion is playing him instead of the other way around. Finding inspiration from his musician-teacher father, Williams found strong support in the Chicago Irish community. While growing up there, he found many opportunities to perform at ceili dances, contests and sessiuns, easily moving from waltzes to reels and jigs. And from those early days, Williams earned his niche. He went on to collaborate with Mick Moloney, Irish historian and musician, Williams performed on the soundtrack for the recent PBS documentary, "Out of Ireland." After a three-day rehearsal, the pickup band then recorded the soundtrack over seven days. "We recorded in Philadelphia in the fall of 1994," Williams said. "A year later, when the documentary and track were released, we were amazed. It was just incredible how the music stood so well on its own without the images," he went on. Williams has not been sitting still since the success of the "Out of Ireland" recording. A self-titled solo album was released last October on the Green Linnet label. Hearing the disk, it is evident that Williams excels in the delicate intricacies of his own intense interpretations, combined with classical traditional music. Currently, Williams is making the rounds with the band Solas, which means "light" in Irish. Playing with him are Winnie Horan, Seamus Egan, John Doyle and Karen Casey. They debuted on the Shanachie label in May. The group is performing on the steps of the US Capitol on July 4, along with Johnny Cash, Los Lobos and Allison Kraus. They will also be performing at Milwaukee Irish Fest, Aug. 16 to 18. Don’t miss ’em.

 Fiddler Magazine
Spring 1996
Michael Simmons

John Williams, John Williams

 The evidence is mounting. There is the great classical guitarist. There is also that guy who writes music or all those Speilberg movies. And now there is a brilliant concertina player.  If you want your son to be a successful musician you should consider naming him John Williams.

 John Williams (the one who plays the squeeze box) is from Chicago . His family is originally from Doolin in County Clare where they were known as fine musicians. In 1989 he became the first American to win the Senior All-Ireland Championship for concertina. This self-titled CD is his first release.

 On this recording Williams plays a set of traditional jigs and reels either solo or with minimal accompaniment by guitar or bouzouki.  These lean arrangements allow the beauty of the tunes to be the focus rather than the mechanical dexterity of the player.  Not that Williams is any slouch in the dexterity department.  His concertina playing is elegant but soulful throughout and he shows has perfect command of his instrument.

 Which instrument, it has to be admitted, is not a violin. So just what is John Williams doing in a fiddle magazine? On some of the tracks he is joined by a man who is no stranger to these pages: Martin Hayes.  The three cuts he appears on justify the purchase of this recording to any lover of Irish Fiddle music. As always, the fiddling of Hayes is impeccable and his duets show how playing with a musician of similar ability can push both to higher levels of achievement. On a more somber note, this was the last recording session of the famed tin whistle player, Micho Russell. He passed away soon after making these recordings.

Amazon.com editorial review by Michael Simmons

Concertina and button accordion player John Williams may have been born in America, but he comes by his feel for traditional Irish music naturally. His father and grandfather both played the box in their native County Clare. Williams plays the music of his ancestors with a combination of Old World respect for tradition and New World energy. On this self-titled debut, tin whistler Micho Russell, guitarist Randal Bays, bouzouki player Eoin O'Neill, and fiddler Martin Hayes join Williams for a set of beautifully played dance tunes and airs. The duets with Hayes are particularly inspired and passionate.  --Michael Simmons, editor

Dirty Linen Feb/Mar 1996
Steve Winick (Philadelphia, PA)

The sessions for John Williams’ debut solo album were among the last that Russell attended before his death. This gives the album a double historical value: it is the solo debut of a gifted free-reed player, and it is the last studio recording of a musical genius. Williams was born in Chicago, but his father was from Doolin, the same town in Clare that has become synonymous with Micho Russell. He got his start on the concertina. and won the senior All-Ireland Championship on the instrument in 1989. He now plays both concertina and accordion, but is still particularly effective on the former. The sweet, dry concertina is a lovely instrument, and it is particularly prevalent in Clare. It blends well with other delicate-sounding instruments, and Williams exploits this. One track features the gentle cittern of Joseph Sobol and the lyrical fiddling of Martin Hayes along with Williams’ concertina. Both tracks that employ Russell’s gentle easygoing Clare whistling pair it with the concertina and back it with the crystalline sound of Eoin O'Neill’s bouzouki. Unless I am mistaken, Williams even uses his accordion to back his concertina, adding soft chords. Williams’ accordion playing also deserves mention. On the opening track, it’s a little fast and loose, but it’s always impressive. On most of the tracks, it is both crisp and buoyant.



From Andy’s Front Hall 1996 Catalog. Andy Recommends

John Williams - John Williams SIF 1157 (C,CD) The first album from the 1989 Senior All-Ireland concertina champ (the first American to win that title!). Williams is a Chicago native with family roots going back to County Clare. His playing is breathtaking and certainly deserving of high praises. His self-titled debut is a straightforward collection of dance sets that features not only his remarkable playing, but also a stellar back-up cast including (the equally awe-inspiring) fiddler Martin Hayes, tin whistle legend Micho Russell, guitarist Randal Bays and bouzouki player Eoin O’Neill. You just don’t get traditional Irish albums like this too often, and from the States, no less. Irish-American dance music takes another step forward! K.F.


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Contact John Williams
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