PHILADELPHIA, July 10- Rock 'n' roll and a square reputation nearly squeezed all the life out of the accordion-but the instrument that launched a thousand Lawrence Welk shows is back. Forget earsplitting renditions of "Lady of Spain" and the accordion's dorky novelty in the hands of weirdos from singer "Weird Al" Yankovic to TV's Steve Urkel. Younger musicians are proudly playing the squeezebox, according to accordionists who gathered Thursday for their annual convention. "IT'S FUN, it's very social, and there's a real camaraderie in our community," said Frank Busso of the American Accordionists Association, which is celebrating its 65th anniversary at this year's festival. More than 500 people will attend seminars, perform in competitions and celebrate their instrument.
There will be polka concerts, of course-plus jazz, pop, world music and classical.
"There's a new age of accordion players now," said Alexander Gikas, 27, of New York City, who learned accordion as a child but started playing again recently. "It used to be mainly traditional German and Polish stuff, but people have really started doing more rock 'n' roll and swing."
The instruments have appeared in recent recordings from acts like Grammy Award-winner Norah Jones and the Talking Heads, as well as a solo instrument with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Modern classical composers from Lukas Foss to Ole Schmidt have written pieces for accordion. "Accordions are very versatile," said musician and teacher Michael Falcetti, 35, of Springfield, Mass. "You can play everything on them, and I think people are finally starting to realize that. We have kids who at one time would have chosen to play keyboard ... but who are choosing to play accordion."
That's a marked change from the instrument's dark days, which began in the early 1960s, enthusiasts say.
"There's still some of that negative thing but it's much less than it used to be," said Falcetti, who is bringing about eight accordion players, ranging in age from 12 to their mid-20s, to the festival. "Adults are loving it, kids are into it, it's great."
Accordions come in dozens of sizes and degrees of complexity, and can cost from a few hundred to many thousand dollars. An average accordion weighs 20 to 30 pounds and is played by pushing and pulling the bellows to force air through the reeds, which are opened by pressing keys and buttons.
Gikas, who plays with a traditional German group at festivals in New York and elsewhere, said the accordion allows him to do two of his favorite things.
"I love to drink and I love to dance," Gikas said. "And the music just makes people want to drink and dance."
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I think we all have Jewel to thank for this.