Mark O’Connor featuring The O’Connor Band
Event on 2017-03-25 19:00:00
"One of the most spectacular journeys in recent American music." – The New York Times"One of the most talented and imaginative artists working in music — any music — today." – The Los Angeles Times"Brilliantly original." – The Seattle Times"The audience was on its feet . . . They were moved by Mr. O'Connor's journey without maps, cheering for the only musician today who can reach so deeply first into the refined, then the vernacular, giving his listeners a complex, sophisticated piece of early-21st-century classical music and then knocking them dead with the brown-dirt whine of a Texas fiddle." – The New York TimesIts 8:40 p.m. on a Friday evening, five minutes before the OConnor Band is slated to make their Grand Ole Opry debut. Fiddle legend Mark OConnor is standing just offstage, wearing his trademark Fedora hat, smiling at the sight of the crowd, the lights, and his old friends in the Opry house band. Its amazing to come full circle and return here, says OConnor. I first performed on this stage when I was 12. Even though it was more than 40 years ago, Ill always vividly remember Roy Acuff introducing me to the crowd. But this performance might be even more special, because I get to have my family out there on stage with me. As if on cue, Marks son, Forrest, walks up in earnest. Dad, we may have a slight problem, says the younger OConnor, wielding a mandolin in his left hand and a pick in his right. I just realized that both our songs are in [the key of] E. Is that okay, or do we need to swap one of them out? Whoops, says Mark. Well, at this point, lets stick with what we decided, because I think the songs are different enough. I bet the audience will love em! Within minutes, the full six-piece OConnor Band is out on stage, launching into a cover of the old Osborne Brothers hit, Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man? Forrests fiance, Kate Lee (vocals, fiddle), is singing lead, and Marks wife, Maggie (vocals, fiddle), is chopping rhythm on the fiddle hard enough that, if you werent looking, you might think she was playing a snare drum. Joe Smart (guitar) and Geoff Saunders (bass) are also holding down a tight groove despite the breakneck pace. After a virtuosic vocal performance from Kate and blistering solos from father and son OConnor, the song ends abruptly, and the audience erupts in what seems to be the loudest applause of the entire evening. Next, the band plays Coming Home, a song penned by Forrest while out on the road with his dad during one of their Appalachian Christmas tours a couple years prior. Its an uptempo, feel-good, almost anthemic tune about coming home to a loved one after months of travel. All the band members, including Mark, join in on harmony vocals for the last two choruses, and the audience eats it up. And just like that, the set is over. The OConnors exit stage right and shake hands with some of the other performers and staff before heading back to the dressing room. I think its bedtime, says Maggie as she puts her fiddle in her case. We need to be on the road at like 5 a.m. because we have two shows at Dollywood tomorrow afternoon! Family bands obviously have significant historical precedent, especially in bluegrass and country music (think The Carter Family, The Stonemans, The Whites, even The Band Perry), but its rare to find one this versatile, and with such a diverse background and story. Mark himself has the name that fans of many different musical styles will immediately recognize. A former child prodigy and national champion on the fiddle, guitar, and mandolin, Mark has won his share of Grammys and CMA Awards, and has collaborated with a dizzying array of iconic artists, including Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Randy Travis, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Bobby McFerrin, Wynton Marsalis, and Yo-Yo Ma. He has also written numerous violin concertos, which he has performed with hundreds of major symphony orchestras around the world. In addition to performing, he has authored a groundbreaking and now best-selling instructional method for strings, The OConnor Method. Hailed by The New York Times as having followed one of the most spectacular journeys in recent American music, OConnors career has been unique and inspirational. Ive recorded on at least 500 albums, says OConnor, but I have to say, there are very few, if any, that Ive been as proud of as this OConnor Band album. With the help of Grammy winners Gregg Field [co-producer] and Neal Cappellino [chief engineer], were bridging the gap between progressive bluegrass, country, and indie folk and yet creating something that is also very commercially viable. Throughout the 12-song album, which will be released August 5, 2016 on Rounder Records (the first label Mark signed with at age 12), the O'Connor Band draws upon a deep well of talent and tradition to make music whose sonic and emotional appeal transcends time and genre, demonstrating an effortless rapport that underlines the group's family roots as well as its prestigious collective pedigree. The title of the record apparently didnt require much deliberation: Coming Home, named after Forrests song, was the obvious choice, as it reflects the arc of his dads career and the meaning of this album so aptly. Forrest himself waited a long time before deciding to follow his fathers footsteps. Growing up in Nashville and Montana, he dabbled in guitar and mandolin until enrolling at Harvard University, where, despite the heavy academic workload, he managed to squeeze in time to practice mandolin late nights in the basement of his dorm building. After graduating summa cum laude and foregoing an invitation to attend Harvard Business School, Forrest co-founded and worked at a video tech startup, Concert Window, before deciding to pursue music as a career in early 2014. Within two months of moving from Boston back to his hometown of Nashville, he won the Tennessee State Mandolin Championship and began touring full-time with OConnor Band co-lead singer and fiance, Kate Lee. Im what you might call a late bloomer, Forrest says with a laugh. But I was around so much music growing up that this way of life feels very natural to me. And our album has to be what, number 50 or something that my dads released as a featured artist? Its my first full album, but I dont think it will sound like it. This band is a natural extension of what I have always loved about music and music-making. Its coming along at a time when we can combine our different sensibilities to create something that will hopefully resonate with the bluegrass and country audiences and beyond. Two of Forrests original songs on the album, What Have I Been Saying? and I Havent Said I Love You In A While, are probably not what one would consider straight-ahead bluegrass. Both are slow- to mid-tempo duets with Kate, and they feature winding, occasionally chromatic melodies, adventurous chord progressions, and lush string textures. Although very personal, both songs draw upon the songcraft of the top country writers of the 80s and 90s, which is refreshing in this acoustic context. Its a pretty cool thing to contribute to the wonderful musical traditions of bluegrass and country while also trying to build on it, Kate adds. I grew up listening to Mark and being inspired by his music, long before I ever knew that he had a son that Id be engaged to. It turns out that Forrest and I have similar writing sensibilities, which is one of the reasons we hit it off so well after we met. The chemistry Kate and Forrest have developed together over the last couple years as vocalists and writers is evident both onstage and on the new recording. Kates journey to this point, however, is perhaps more similar to Marks than Forrests. Born and raised in Rochester, NY, Kate became the leader of her own band, Kate Lee & No Strings Attached, at age 12, and she won several state and regional songwriting contests in the ensuing years. Soon after moving to Nashville to study commercial violin performance at Belmont University, she began performing behind a number of the biggest names in country music, including Martina McBride, Lady Antebellum, Vince Gill, Jennifer Nettles, and Rascal Flatts. She also formed an unlikely but highly productive songwriting partnership with Pat Alger (Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Nanci Griffith), and a couple of their songs appear on the OConnor Band album. The songs Kate and Pat wrote especially Blacktop Boy are so accessible, says Maggie. That one in particular sounds like a radio single to me, and Kates singing on it is so powerful. But honestly, its hard to choose favorites on this album. The music is diverse yet so cohesive. I think thats because we have such a good camaraderie. Of course, having a band with two couples is unique, but in some ways our very different backgrounds contribute to the cohesion. Its like we are each inspired by each others journeys to this point because, in spite of being a family, we all followed different paths to get here. Maggie, who sings both lead and background vocals in addition to playing violin for the OConnor Band, is the only core member of the band with a higher academic degree, having earned a Master of Music in violin performance from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. After growing up playing and singing country, bluegrass, and jazz with her own family band in a small town outside Atlanta, GA, she underwent years of intense Russian School classical violin training, but she never lost her yearning to play American styles. In 2014, while still considering pursuing an orchestral career, she reached out to Mark whom she had never met about setting up a fiddle lesson during a trip to New York City, where Mark was living at the time. Ill put it this way: That lesson changed a few things! exclaims Maggie. Within weeks, Maggie began performing with Mark both domestically and abroad, including with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and at the Leopold Auer Academia in Hungary and the Berlin Konzerthaus in Germany. But perhaps no performance meant as much as one they played November of that year at their own wedding. Maggies ability to blend tonally with her husband is startling; indeed, it literally sounds like they are one violinist sometimes. Fortunately, given Marks command as an arranger, the two are able to harness the beauty of their blend often, especially on Marks versions of the driving Bill Monroe classic, Jerusalem Ridge and the bouncing, energetic traditional tune, Fishers Hornpipe, as well as in his majestic original composition, Fiddler Going Home. All three of these songs appear on Coming Home. Playing with Maggie is so effortless and invigorating, says Mark. Im not just saying this because shes my wife Ive really never enjoyed playing with another violinist this much. But honestly, thats how it is with Forrest and Kate as well. Ive played with many of the top female singers in my time, and there are really none better than Kate she is just that good. And Joe and Geoff have to be two of the best sidemen on the bluegrass scene today. Who knows? Maybe theyre related to us too somehow. Joe, a former National Flatpick Guitar Champion, and Geoff, a DMA candidate in Bass Performance from the University of Miami, grew up listening to Marks music, so perhaps the chemistry with them should come as no surprise. Joes playing on Coming Home has to be one of the best bluegrass guitar performances of the year, Mark says. And our co-producer, Gregg Field, praised Geoff as having the best bass sound hed ever gotten on record. Pretty amazing stuff for players who havent been on the scene that long yet! The truth is that all six musicians possess impressive multi-instrumental abilities that allow the group to explore a wide range of musical configurations. The three-violin lineup is unique amongst contemporary ensembles. The virtuosic playing competes with any bluegrass band out there. The songs (described as modern-day classics by Field) hold their own with anything youll hear on a Friday or Saturday night at The Bluebird Caf in Nashville. Coming Home may be one of the most impressive debut albums released by any bluegrass band in a long time. Back at the Opry, Mark smiles and shakes his head after walking offstage. That might have been the fastest weve ever played Ruby, he laughs. Whew! I forgot how much I loved playing here. It definitely feels like Im coming home.
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