Where most kids began their musical journeys on piano or guitar, local accordion and keyboard player Al DiMarco started out on a small, no-brand, Italian accordion. It was gifted to him by his grandparents after one of their trips to Italy.
“At the time I learned to play, accordion was still popular,” he says. “There were accordions being sold in studios everywhere and many opportunities for students to take lessons.”
That was the early ‘60s.
For being such a young instrument, the accordion has had a wild ride in American culture when it comes to popularity. It resembles a “one-hit-wonder” band and pops up every so often before disappearing into the shadows and emerging again. “Once The Beatles happened and the rock scene [began to rise], the accordion’s popularity started to decline,” DiMarco says. “It has never really made a full comeback; although, you can still find a few players such as Sheryl Crow and Régine Chassagne from Arcade Fire.”
Despite the accordion’s crucial role in DiMarco’s musical growth, he fell victim to the popularity game and set aside the instrument between the early ‘70s to the late ‘80s; it wasn’t what people wanted to hear. “I didn’t have positive or negative feelings about the accordion when I started playing as a kid because it was simply handed to me,” DiMarco says. “I played it because I loved music. It was just happenstance that I played the accordion.”
During his sabbatical from accordion, DiMarco focused on playing keyboard and bass keys with a cover band called “Second Chance” in Connecticut, his home state. They traveled around surrounding states to play in bars, hotels and restaurants.
“In 1983 I moved to California because that was where all the music seemed to be coming from,” DiMarco tells. “I didn’t know anybody, but I decided to go to this jam with my accordion at a small Mexican restaurant. As I was pulling my accordion from my car, the bass player who ran the jam saw me. He says, ‘Hey, man, is that an accordion?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it is.’ He said, ‘Great! Come on in.’”
The jam leader for the night was Chad Watson, a bass player connected to the country-music scene. He had played with Ronnie Milsap, Janis Ian and The Flying Burrito Brothers, the backup band for Gram Parsons. “He started taking me everywhere [to play] with him,” DiMarco says. “People started asking me to play accordion for their indie records, and then Disney called to see if I could play a musical pirate at Tokyo DisneySea.”
After seven years in Tokyo—one and a half with DisneySea and the rest working freelance musical performances—DiMarco moved back to California to seek other opportunities. Since the market had changed so drastically after coming back from Tokyo, DiMarco eventually decided to move to Brunswick County to be close to his mother.
Fast forward to today, DiMarco plays both his accordion and keys around Wilmington. “In my opinion, accordion is not suitable for all styles,” he tells. “I use it when the setting calls for it, like in bluegrass, folk and ethnic music.”
With a piece of plywood and a lot of Velcro, DiMarco created his own pedal rig that sits underneath his keyboard, which allows him to signal electronic instrument sounds whenever needed. Alongside pedals that queue in sounds, DiMarco uses an Oxygen MIDI keyboard controller to signal bass. His Roland Super JV synthesizer leads directly to a Boss DR-880 drum machine, which is attached to a Soundcraft mixing board to regulate sound levels. With his knack for innovative set-ups, DiMarco is able to create almost any sound he desires.
He likes to keep things new and exciting by playing a variety of music. One of his favorite genres on accordion is Tejano music or Tex-Mex—the American-Mexican version of folk. He oftentimes plays it with the accordion as the melodic lead; guitar or banjo plays rhythmic portions. Typically fast-paced, it relies heavily on percussion and synthesizers in modern songs. “There are different styles of Tex-Mex and I like the Ranchera,” DiMarco says. “It’s really like Mexican polka because Mexicans heard the German polka and liked it, but they put the Mexican flavor on it.”
Locally, DiMarco has played with other bands including jazz saxophonist Benny Hill, bluesman Randy McQuay and blues band Snake Malone and the Black Cat Bone. While folks can catch DiMarco with his own all-accordion outfit, Al DiMarco’s Big Fat Accordion Band, most weeks he’s solo on Wednesdays at “Music Sit-In with Al DiMarco” at Platypus and Gnome. DiMarco plays Tex-Mex, cumbia, folk, pop, and zydeco, the latter which has its roots in the Cajun music of Louisiana. DiMarco keeps the floor open to collaboration with other musicians, and often shares it with saxophonists, guitarists and even fellow accordion players. “One time this guy came in and asked to see my accordion,” DiMarco recalls, “I gave it to him and he played it beautifully. We actually spent the evening playing songs together.”
When time allows, he enjoys repairing or improving different accordions, just as he did to his electric one, by wiring a circuit board into it. “It allowed me to trigger bass sounds the same way I do on my MIDI keyboard,” DiMarco explains. “Now, I can actually play accordion and bass without having to switch instruments.”
Though they’re not winning any popularity contests, DiMarco says his accordions are like his children. His collection has reached a total of 16, with brands such as Excelsior, Dallape and Hohner. “I just can’t let an accordion go that doesn’t have a home,” DiMarco admits. “I take them in, fix them up and find somebody who will take care of them.”