August 1999 and May 2002
Originally this was a review of the Button Box Ceili anglo conertina, written in August 1999. Recently The Button Box have added to their range the Albion English concertina, which is a derivative of the Ceili. Since the construction of the two concertinas is so similar, I thought that instead of writing a separate review, I would append some details of the Albion to the Ceili review. Also, there have been some (non-design) changes to the Ceili too, which will also go at the end. So, if you want to know about the Albion, please read the Ceili section first. If you want to know about the Ceili, read the last section as well. And now, back to 1999!
For a long time now the concertina community has been waiting for the fabled Button Box concertinas to arrive, which have been Real Soon Now for more years than anyone (least of all Button Box) would prefer to remember. Well, Real Soon Now has at last become simply Now, and frankly, it has been worth the wait.
A couple of weeks ago The Button Box sent me one of the first production anglos for review. The instrument is a thirty-button C/G anglo using the Jeffries layout. The Button Box have named the concertina the Ceili. The manufacturers name plate reads "R. Morse & Co. Concertinas. Amherst Mass. USA" and the number is 004. It is priced at $1450, which puts it in the same price arena as the new breed of accordion-reed-based anglos from Herrington, Marcus and Norman, and it is no surprise to learn that this too uses accordion reeds.
This price range - $1200 to $1500 - is important because it is affordable to many beginners where the better quality concertinas (Jeffries and the like) have been priced through the ceiling recently and are simply inaccessible to most people. For the same price you can sometimes find nice Lachenal boxes that play well and have a beautiful tone, but the supply seems to be drying up, and until these new concertinas came along it was often very difficult to know what to recommend to a beginner. There is a similar problem with English concertinas, but more of that later.
In appearance it is a conservative brown, wooden ended instrument with black bellows and black delrin buttons. It has six sides (obvious I know, but some of us play 4-sided Herringtons...). The fretwork on the ends is very attractive, with the perfection that betrays the laser cutting technology used in the manufacture. (Just a thought, but there's nothing like bellows papers to make a concertina look expensive. Perhaps they could offer these as an optional extra). It looks sober and serious, a "real" concertina.
Inside, this concertina is a mixture of the traditional and the innovative. Removing the six screws that hold the end on reveals a completely traditional riveted and sprung action that looks good for many years of use.
When you remove the plate on which the action sits you find the major innovation. The concertina doesn't use a conventional reed pan. Instead the reeds are mounted on the other side of the action plate. Action and reed-pan are one unified unit. The reeds are held in place by wax, as per accordions. This means that if you have problems with the reeds of this concertina then an accordion repairman should feel at home.
Now for some first impressions. The first shock is the weight. There isn't any. It weighs just 915 grams. It is much the lightest concertina I have ever encountered. You could play this thing standing up for hours.
Considering its use of accordion reeds the sound is more like a concertina than an accordion (though people listening usually were able to identify the type of reeds used). It is bright and fairly loud. Not a singer's instrument, but it will make itself heard in a session without being obtrusive. The instrument might have been brighter with metal ends, but I personally think that it is bright enough already, and that the wood plays an important role in making the sound pleasant. For those who want to sweeten the tone a little then it should not be difficult to add leather baffles (maybe another optional extra?).
The action is pretty good. There is no play on the buttons and the response is quick. For my taste it is a little heavily sprung, but this is marginal and well with the realms of personal preference. Overall the instrument feels very slightly stiff, but this is almost certainly due to its newness. I enjoyed playing it.
I own a square Herrington G/D anglo (cost $1200), which I have had for about a year now, and it was very interesting to compare the two instruments. For two anglos in the same price range, they are amazingly different. The Herrington is much heavier, but is beautifully put together. It doesn't particularly look like a concertina, but I don't regard that as a disadvantage (I should point out in fairness that Harold makes more normal looking 6-sided instruments at $1500). It uses an innovative action but a normal concertina reed pan, whereas the Button Box box uses a normal action but an innovative approach to the reed pan. In the Herrington each reed plate is individually clamped in place, whereas in the Button Box they are waxed in. The Herrington uses accordion style bellows, while the Button Box uses more normal leather bellows. I could go on and on. The bottom line is that both are fine instruments at their price. I am very fond of my Herrington, but I may well have become just as fond of a Button Box concertina if I had owned that instead. I also have a Dickinson/Wheatstone C/G anglo, which is a dream of an instrument and clearly outclasses both the Button Box and the Herrington anglos, but that is an unfair comparison as the Wheatstone would cost you an extra few thousand dollars. There must always be something to aspire to in life...
Button Box have some very interesting future plans ahead. This instrument uses the Jeffries layout, but future production runs will also include Wheatstone/Lachenal layout concertinas. Also they intend to make G/D anglos in the near future. Down the line somewhat, Rich Morse still hasn't forgotten his plans to make Hayden duets, which started the whole ball rolling.
(At this point, back in 1999, I described how The Button Box intended to answer Alistair Anderson's challenge to develop an affordable but worthwhile new English concertina. As you will see below, the Albion is a magnificent answer).
The concertina arrived while I was at Sidmouth Folk Festival, The Button Box having taken care to send it to the hotel where I was staying, so I was able to take it around and get the opinion of other players. It met with a lot of approval and was generally regarded as good value at the price. Mick Bramich (author of The Irish Concertina) was sufficiently impressed to offer the endorsement "If I were a beginner, I'd buy it".
Given its lightness I can particularly imagine a good market among Morris musicians and the like, who have to play outdoors and standing. I could easily imagine such people buying one of these as a second instrument.
When I wrote a review of my Herrington concertina I ended by saying that I have always felt that a good beginners instrument is one that will continue to suit the player until long after the appellation "beginner" is no longer appropriate. Like Harold Herrington's concertinas, the new Button Box Ceili concertina will do this splendidly. It is a good instrument at a good price, and should do very well.
The Albion and Current Developments
Well, here is an Albion:-
I met the beast at the 2002 Scandinavian Squeeze-In, where Jim Lucas had one on loan from The Button Box for review purposes, just as I had had the Ceili. Like the Ceili, it carries a maker's name of R. Morse & Co. It is a 37-button English concertina, with a range from the G below middle C to the high D (3 octaves above middle C), including all the duplicated accidentals. This is essentially the same as a typical 48-key treble English without the highest notes, which is important because it means that a player can transfer from an Albion to a normal treble without problem. The reason for the reduced button count is the use of accordion reeds rather than concertina reeds. The design compromise is the same as for the Ceili: accordion reeds mean a much cheaper instrument, but accordion reeds are much larger than concertina reeds, and so it is not physically possible to mount 96 (48 * 2) reeds in the space of a small concertina, which is why 30-button anglos have made all the running in this market place so far. The problem is slightly ameliorated by the fact that an anglo has all its largest reeds on the left hand side, while the English has them evenly spread between both. This has enabled the wizards at The Button Box to fit a total of 37 reed blocks in the Albion. I am told by English players that this is not the restriction it might seem, as in practice the higher notes on an English are rarely used.
The mechanics of the Albion are exactly the same as for the Ceili, and many of the characteristics are the same, such as the light weight. The tone is actually more concertina-like than the Ceili, which surprised me. I asked Rich Morse about it later, and he said, "I think that the more concertina-like sound character has to do with having ends with a lower percentage of voids. Having more wood to absorb sound seems to suppress some of the more accordion-like overtones". Either way, it is a pleasant sound. While I don't play English myself, I was surrounded with them at the Squeeze-In, including my partner Anne. It was a well-liked instrument, and Anne describes it as very comfortable to play. It will set you back $1650 to buy one (that's about £1100).
All in all, I would say the Wizards of Amherst have done it again. There was a real hole in the market that needed filling, for a decent English concertina at an affordable price, and here it is. I expect it to do as well as the Ceili has already done.
As promised above, a note on further developments on R. Morse Concertinas. In an email, Rich Morse said, "There have been a number of improvements to the original Ceilis, but they are not design-related. The box is inherently the same, plays the same and sounds the same. The improvements are mostly in having more leather in the bellows (replacing most of the synthetic "leather"), better grade cherry plywood for the ends (we now hand pick the log, have it veneered to our specs and have a specialty place make it into plywood using a cold-press method), the action rods are now brass (originally stainless steel), the button tops are now a flatish ellipse and are buffed to a high shine (originally more of an evenly domed top), and the ends are finished with a clearer, smoother, and harder finish".
He also said that now that the Albion is out of the way, work resumes on the legendary Morse Hayden. However, for this instrument they are determined to make their own reeds (I can guess why, they'd never be able to make a Hayden with sufficient buttons using accordion reeds) and of course this adds enormously to the development effort. However, while I still wouldn't hold my breath waiting, The Button Box now have a track record of delivering concertinas, and I am sure it will arrive one day.