O'Brien goes it alone
Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., Sept. 17, 1997
By Jeffrey B. Remz
SOMERVILLE - Bluegrasser Tim O'Brien has hit the road with his back-up band The O'Boys. And he has done it with sister Mollie O'Brien.
But at Johnny D's Wednesday, O'Brien went it alone before an appreciative mid-week crowd.
And O'Brien demonstrated that he was none the worse for wear under this new configuration, heavily leaning on songs from his fine new and aptly titled album, "When No One's Around" and occasionally reaching back into his catalogue.
O'Brien mixed it up musically between bluegrass, country and folk. The first two stylings proved to be the more interesting and adventuresome during the very generous 135-minute, two-set performance.
One of the highlights of the opening set was the bluegrass-based, catchy "Kick Me When I'm Down," where the protagonist laments a friend who takes advantage of his break-up with his woman, eventually winding up in jail after reaching for his gun instead of toothpaste.
The humor extended throughout the evening, both in lyrical content and musical comment. The highlight was "Melancholy Moon Not" in the second set introduced by O'Brien as "a song about songs." And indeed he was right, stringing a zillion song titles or well known lines together. For example, after commenting about Bob Wills's "Big Balls in Cowtown" prior to the song, O'Brien sang, "Where did I find that cow town?/Did it really have big balls."
As for Elvis, "Nobody ever really saw him wear blue suede shoes," O'Brien sang. And he ended it with some traditional yodeling.
But don't mistake O'Brien for some comic up there. Yes, he was funny in song and comments (at one point , he "introduced" his band, who, of course, were not there).
One thing O'Brien probably is not making fun of is his good fortunate since moving to Nashville. Numero uno is that one of his songs, "When There's No One Around," (co-written with former Bostonian Darrell Scott) will appear on Garth Brooks's next album, "Sevens."
He also displayed his serious side. "Out on the Rollin' Sea" from the new disc talks about being on the water with the lines "we're passin' through this place each at our different pace/The world is just a journey, it's not our home."
"Don't Be Surprised (Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve)" lashes out at the "hurtful games" of people with "fear and hate" the end result.
O'Brien's voice was up to the task for the most part, though a bit thin at times.
Musically, the evening proved most entertaining when O'Brien spiced the songs with fiddle and mandolin. At a few points where the pacing seemed to slacken, O'Brien smartly changed gears with a different instrument and sound.
O'Brien did not go it totally alone. During the three-song encore of Jimmie Rodgers's "California Blues," Hank Williams's "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Deep Ellum Blues," fiddler Matt Glaser joined the festivities, fleshing out the sound even more in a spirited segment.
O'Brien may be going through even more musical permutations in the next year as one O'Boy is leaving, but O'Brien showed no matter who he is with - even himself - he can deliver.