Live Review | NCEM, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson
Some musicians like to make it all look so easy, whether it be in the way they jump from one instrument to the other, demonstrating an excellence of playing and dexterity in each of the instruments they pick up, or in the relaxed approach they have to singing, especially in some of the most challenging songs. Tim O’Brien is such a singer and musician who made his solo debut in York tonight at the National Centre for Early Music, performing much of his current Chameleon album to a packed and enthusiastic house. Born and raised in Wheeling, West Virginia, a place where you couldn’t really create an equivalent of CSI due to “everyone having the same DNA and no dental records” he joked, O’Brien is steeped in traditional country and bluegrass music and has been a major player in this field for some three or four decades. Having cut his teeth in the bluegrass band Hot Rize throughout the 1980s, culminating in the band picking up the International Bluegrass Music Association’s first ever Entertainer of the Year award in 1990, and taking the Male Vocalist of the Year award himself three years later, Tim has settled into a solo career of some considerable merit and is a much sought after musical collaborator; you sense that he never stops. He would be meeting up with LAU after tonight’s show, who are playing at nearby Thorganby and tomorrow he’ll be hanging out with the Rusbys, catching Kate’s show at the York Opera House. Tim was relaxed tonight, though in all fairness it’s hard to imagine him being anything other than relaxed; I should imagine he’s pretty cool by nature. Starting with “Kelly Joe’s Shoes”, Tim alternated between guitar, fiddle, banjo and guitar shaped bouzouki – “I had it built in the shape of a guitar to avoid telling airport officials I have a bouzouki in my case”, performing a first set that probably went over the hour mark. Tim may have been waiting for the ‘one more’ signal, but everyone including Chris Euesden, our MC for the gig, was enjoying the first set too much to bring it to a close. A good deal of the performance was centred around Tim’s current album Chameleon including the bluesy “World of Trouble”, the minor key troubadour love song “The Garden”, and the dance friendly “Get Out There and Dance”, during which Tim did the old side step and shimmied as he played. Tim’s sense of humour was evident not only in his between-song stories but also in songs such as “Running out of Memory for You”, from his Cornbread Nation album, bringing us bang up to date lyrically but maintaining the old bluegrass sensibility. Joining the Grammy Award winning O’Brien for a couple of songs from the record voted Best Traditional Folk Album of 2005, Fiddler’s Green, was the British multi-instrumentalist Jason Titley, whose work on the British bluegrass scene, most notably in bands such as Natural Hazard and The Daily Planet, had not gone unnoticed by his American peers. With Titley providing the rhythm on either guitar or tarabuka, O’Brien was free to dazzle the audience with his fiddle and banjo playing respectively on “Sandy River Belle” and O’Brien’s take on Ola Belle Reed’s soulful “I’ve Endured”. Returning to the bouzouki (“Greek for out-of-tune”), O’Brien concluded with “Walk Beside Me” featuring some stunning guitar licks courtesy of Titsley, before returning to the stage for an encore of the anthemic “A Mountaineer is Always Free” from his acclaimed album The Crossing, rounding off an excellent evening with one of the true giants of Americana.