O’Connor Band (featuring Mark O’Connor)
Mark O’Connor has covered a lot of ground in his musical career; starting as a prodigy on the fiddle, with such disparate mentors as Benny Thomassen and Stephane Grappelli. Back in the ’90’s he had a six-year run as CMA’s Musician of the Year. In addition to his fiddle prowess, he’s won national titles playing flat picking guitar and mandolin.
Now, O’Connor has put together the O’Connor Band, which features Mark on strings and vocals wife Maggie on fiddle, son Forrest on mandolin and vocals and Forest’s partner Kate Lee contributing fiddle and vocals. Rounding out the band is National Flat Pick Guitar Champion Joe Smart and bassist/ banjo player Geoff Saunders. Forest has the distinction of being both a graduate of Harvard and being a former Tennessee State mandolin champion. With that lineage, the band displays solid command of their instruments and respectful treatment of traditional, and traditional-sounding, songs.
The title cut of “Comin’ Home” looks to the road, a staple of traditional bluegrass music, anticipating salvation in the space off the tour bus. Its fulsome sounds and evocative lyrics hit the right mark. O’Connor’s vocals don’t match his musicianship, but they are delivered with earnestness and heart.
The collection swings between new material and old. “Jerusalem Ridge”, a traditional tune identified with Kenny Baker and Bill Monroe, shines with Smart’s flat picking and O’Connor’s soaring fiddle lines. “Ruby”, which Ricky Skaggs appropriated from Monroe forever at the age of six, gets a female point of view, with great effect.
The newer selections like “The Sweet Ones” (written by Kate Lee and Jon Weisberger) and “What Have I Been Saying” hold their own among the bluegrass standards; the playing seldom falters.
Mark O’Connor is a singular highlight reel of fiddle playing, and his outstanding “Fiddler Going Home”, first performed with O’Connor’s swing-jazz Hot Swing Trio around the turn of this century, is reprised here, with great effect. This band complements him with tasteful phrasing and soul.
The family band is a longstanding conceit of bluegrass and mountain music, including the Carters, the Osbornes, the McReynolds, the Whites and countless others, continuing to the present with Frank Solivan, Gibson Brothers, Spinney Brothers The Watkins Family Hour and The Del McCoury Band. The O’Connor family steps into the pattern with ease. The band displays both sweetness and grit in equal measure to create an extremely satisfying listening experience.