Most of my roots and bluegrass music epiphanies came in the 1980s and 90s so it was inevitable that Mark O’Connor would keep popping up on my radar screen and my then-new, fancy pants CD player. He was far and away the field’s top fiddler (though the term doesn’t do justice to his scope and complete musicianship as we’ll see). I tuned into TNN’s incredible show American Music Shop and there was O’Connor as music director. Every other country album I picked up seemed to have O’Connor in the studio band (Kathy Mattea, Randy Travis, Patty Loveless, Marty Stuart and on and on). And he was integral to my Rosetta Stone of American instrumental music – the 1989 Telluride Sessions by supergroup Strength In Numbers. (It’s too big a deal to go into here. Look it up and let it blow your mind.)
Bottom line: Mark O’Connor is one of the most important forces in American music at large in the last 50 years and I’m kind of dazzled that he’s bringing his new back-to-bluegrass family band to MCR this week. And as if that’s not rad enough, we’ll follow up the O’Connor Band with our first ever full-on New Orleans Mardis Gras Indian band. So we’ll have fiddles, feathers, funk and I daresay a whole lot of fun.
O’Connor was a musical prodigy started taking top prizes as a teenager on guitar, mandolin and fiddle. He played hard core old time and southern rock with the Dixie Dregs. His career in Nashville encompasses nearly 1,000 albums as a studio player and he found myriad ways to express his love for American string music, going well beyond country and bluegrass/newgrass. I grew up playing classical violin, so when I heard O’Connor crossing over into formal concert territory, I recognized the enormity of his vision. His Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey recordings with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer tapped into the folk/classical vision of Aaron Copland. O’Connor composed solo violin pieces that bridged bluegrass with Paganini and full scale concert works with orchestra. And he teaches his ideas through camps and novel string study curriculum. It’s a deep story that has transfixed me for years.
Now the explorer has turned to The O’Connor Band, a family affair involving his wife Maggie, his son Forrest and Forrest’s partner Kate Lee, plus champion guitarist Joe Smart and bass player Geoff Saunders. The ensemble released its debut on Rounder Records (Mark’s first label) last Friday and we are so lucky to be part of the roll-out tour. The project is a soaring delight that harkens to the classic Rounder sound of the 90s, aided no doubt by the fact that Kate’s bell-clear lead vocals feel a bit like Alison Krauss in that era. Forrest is a stellar mandolinist who brings the brains he proved acing Harvard University and launching the business Concert Window. There are as many as three fiddles going at once, which makes classics like “Jerusalem Ridge” come alive even as most the album is made of delicious original songs like radio ready “Blacktop Boy.” This is going to be magisterial.
Now what’s a Cha Wa? Well, that would be New Orleans street patois that more or less means “We’re comin’ at ya!” And that’s a message you can’t mistake when you see the Mardis Gras Indians marching with their brass bands. The band Cha Wa has taken the street experience to the stage and the road, which is really rare for this kind of band, because there’s a lot of work to be had in the Crescent City and because it’s freakin’ hard carrying the feathered outfits on the road. But Cha Wa has been all over the country this summer, playing everywhere from Virginia to Austin to Seattle. Their new record earned a stellar review in AllAboutJazz that said in part: “Tribal drums and chants detonate seismic New Orleans funk that overwhelms your ears so quickly that they don’t know where to turn first: the electric bass line that bounces like a rubber tuba, or Benny Spellman’s alto saxophone burning like a flaming spear, the vocal howls and catcalls, or the irresistible second line New Orleans beat.” Yes, that will be on our stage, and probably out in the crowd too.
Also on this refined and funky night with the serene songs of The Sweeplings, a duo of Cami Bradley and Whitney Dean who met to write in 2014 and who’ve managed forming a band despite living on opposite sides of the country (Washington state and Alabama respectively). There are hints of the Civil Wars in their intimacy and attention to dynamics. The songwriters call their first encounters “instant musical chemistry,” and when you feel it, you feel it. Rounding out the night will be a set by the songwriter who calls himself Albatross, which may – based on his colorful personality – be more akin to the Monty Python sketch (“Albatross!”) than the accursed bird from Coleridge (though maybe a touch of both?). He is British and a finger picking songwriter who works terrain cleared by Burt Jansch and Nick Drake. Blog Maximum Ink says his “restless melancholy unfolds emotions living in the hopeful crossroads between gentle lullabies, sad good-byes and friendly salutations.”
So it sounds like we’ll be touching a lot of sonic bases and flavors of Americana, because that’s what we do. We’re comin’ at you. Cha wa!