By Bob Doerschuk
The O’Connor Band brings killer vocals into a triple-fiddle mix
Is it a paradox that some of the most exciting innovations in American music stem from its most deeply planted traditions? Mark O’Connor doesn’t think so. With his wife Maggie and soon-to-be daughter-in-law Kate Lee joining him on violins, his presentation does suggest an intention to take traditional music to some unusual places. Add to that Kate’s beau and Mark’s son Forrest on mandolin, plus former National Flatpick Guitar Champion Joe Smart and bassist/banjo master Geoff Sanders, and you’ve got a lineup that honors its roots by moving way beyond them with respect and originality.
Mark’s bona fides are well established. Maggie O’Connor earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in violin performance from the Peabody Institute, and had her solo career underway when she met Mark and began playing his Strings and Threads Suite and other repertoire with him and orchestras around the world. Kate Lee studied classical and fiddle music while training as well in voice; she recorded her first solo album at age 15 in 2007, performed with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009, and has amassed extensive violin and vocal session credits with artists ranging from Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, and Keith Urban to Mary J. Blige and Mary Gauthier.
On August 9 the O’Connor Band celebrated the release of Coming Home at Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley. To those who had already savored the group’s debut album on Rounder Records, the live show added dimension to the recording. In the studio, their music was impeccably executed: “Fishers Hornpipe,” “Fiddler Going Home,” and other instrumental tracks blended idiomatic fiddling with ambitious ensemble episodes, while lead and harmony vocals on the blazing “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” and the romantic “I Haven’t Said I Love You in a While” blend with or receive support from one, two, or three violins, depending on the arrangement.
Onstage, the focus was more on the moment than on posterity. When they hit their closing number, a medley that included Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Mark dug so deeply into his solo that he couldn’t help but jump up and down at its climax, prompting much of the crowd to do more or less the same with shouts and cheers to boot.
Things had calmed down enough a few days later for Mark, Maggie, and Kate to reflect on their new endeavor.
What makes the O’Connor Band different from other projects you’ve all been involved with?
Mark: The biggest hook for me is that I’ve not been in too many groups with such great vocals. I’ve certainly played with vocalists on their projects but to put a group together and concentrate on meaningful vocal writing is something of a departure for me. The fact that we have male and female lead vocalists is unusual. I can’t think of too many groups like that. And also the three fiddles, which brings us to Strings magazine . . . [Laughter.]
Your concert the other night had an energy that’s very hard to capture in the studio. When you recorded Coming Home, did you try to capture some element of that energy or did you have different priorities?
Mark: That’s a good question. While I think about my answer, I’ll give this to Maggie.
Maggie: Thanks, Mark! [Laughter.] Most of the time, we were sitting down as we recorded this music. Onstage, we never sit. We have to turn it up a notch because we’re entertaining. Ninety-nine percent of it is about the music but there’s an element of wanting to put on a great show, too. You don’t have to worry about that or what you’re wearing or putting on makeup in the studio.
Kate: Actually, sometimes in the studio I wanted to bring that energy, but you really need to focus because what you’re getting down is gonna be out there forever.
Mark: But also, the fiddle tunes on our album and “Ruby” represent that reckless abandon. The idea was that we weren’t going to overdub anything. With some of the other songs, we tried to create a feel that people could listen to over and over again. It’s a different intention when you go for virtuosic instrumental energy or, in the case of “Ruby,” a virtuosic vocal performance.
Conversely, at 3rd and Lindsley, in the midst of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” in a waltz-time arrangement that’s faithful to the Bill Monroe recording, you introduce a string interlude toward the end that sounds almost like 20th-century music.
Mark: That’s from my String Quartet No. 2, subtitled “Bluegrass.” When I wrote the slow movement, I wanted to reference “Blue Moon of Kentucky” within its thematic foundation. I didn’t want to just state the melody and do a theme-and-variations; I wanted to emulate the sound of Bill Monroe’s lonesome high tenor. When we started putting the repertoire together for this band, I fired off a message to Kate and asked, “By the way, if you sing ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky,’ what key would you put that in?” She came back with the key of C, which is the key of the second movement of my String Quartet. You’re listening to four strings play natural harmonics for the final chorus, so to transpose that would be nearly impossible.
Kate, did Mark thank you for singing this in C?
Kate: Over and over again. [Laughter.]
Mark: To me, Bill Monroe’s bluegrass was the first chamber music in Appalachian string bands, where each instrument had a part to play. They came together and separated in their individual roles. I’ve always likened that to a string quartet, so I wanted to play up those natural bridges between the two forms of music. With Kate filling in the viola role and Geoff Saunders playing higher on the arco bass to fill in for the cello, that provided not only an opportunity for “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” but also for many arrangements throughout our program. You’ll see us duck into these areas where it’s like two or three strings and then all of a sudden there are four and then it’s back to two. We almost never play parallel harmonies in the tradition of bluegrass or Western-swing triple fiddling. We try to create unique roles for each stringed instrument onstage and then occasionally come together and drift apart again into counterpoint.
How does improvisation factor into this method?
Maggie: Even when we learn classical music, it’s important to us to make it sound like the music is improvised. We all have parts that we play in songs but there are little improvised pockets within each piece, too.
Mark: For instance, while one of us might be doing a lot of solo or filling work, another violin might do a rhythmic configuration with the bow and the other violin might be doing longer notes. You have a tapestry, if you will. With this combination of fiddles, Forrest’s mandolin, and these beautiful singers, we can take “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” turn it into a string quartet and then back into a Kentucky ballad. We all have country, Americana, and folk-music sensibilities. Several of us have classical backgrounds as well. We’ve got all these cards in our hands . . . so we’re gonna play them.
WHAT THEY PLAY:
Mark: “I use a Jonathan Cooper violin, about 15 years old, with D’Addario strings. Since the beginning of my career I’ve gone back and forth between my two trusty Hoyer bows depending on which one feels better at the time, how much I’ve worn away the hair, and so forth.”
Maggie: “I play a Lukasz Wronski violin, made in ’96. I’ve had it since I was in high school. I love playing it because I get to talk with and be friends with Lukasz. He actually opened the top about two years ago and totally changed the sound for the better. My bow is a G.A. Pfretzschner. I mainly use D’Addario strings.”
Kate: “I have an Amédée Dieudonné violin. My bow is made by Klaus Uebel, who is German; I don’t know how old it is. I use Pirastro Obligato strings because I like the warmth they give my violin.”