Concert Review: Tim O’Brien

Once again intimacy and honesty win an audience’s favor

By Sarah Larsen

BRYN ATHYN, PA — In the greater Philadelphia area, the tradition of house concerts is a common occurrence sometimes taken for granted. On any given night, touring musicians may be performing in your friend’s living room for a “recommended donation,” usually less than the cost of a ticket or cover charge at a larger venue. This DIY concert style can range from five attendees to upwards of 50 or 60.

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It is extremely rare, however, to catch an international touring pro like Tim O’Brien in such an intimate setting. The most effortless employer of American style, O’Brien has been a constant fixture on the scene since the late 1970s. Nearly 40 years, numerous albums, and countless collaborations later, O’Brien’s voice and good humor still radiate as clearly as ever. He acknowledged the paradox of the situation, as the night before he and the band “played a 1,200-seat room for about 300 people.” Whoever reviewed that show found it to be “muddy,” said O’Brien. What a pity they weren’t in the intimate crowd of around 50 on Sunday night.

O’Brien’s vocal prowess is the most natural of any bluegrass performer today. There is no tension in his face, his jaw, his slightly stooped posture under the weight of his 00-18. His vocal runs are quick and tight, perfectly fitting his original material and the repertoire he’s chosen. His playing is flawless, whether picking guitar or his iconic, black-faced A-style Nugget. And to see O’Brien in the role of bandleader with this great band was a special and rare treat; usually O’Brien is found with storied bluegrass band Hot Rize or solo.

The most iconic and identifiable member of the Tim O’Brien Band (as they have taken to calling themselves) besides O’Brien himself is legendary bassist and vocalist Mike Bub. It’s tempting to say Bub is in his prime, but that could serve to diminish his distinguished tenure with the Del McCoury Band, or lessen his impact on the great body of recordings he’s participated in. In bluegrass, the role of bassist is the most underappreciated of all–you don’t know how good it is until it’s bad. But Bub, resplendent in his hipster eyeglasses, fun haircut, and giant smile, is all technical prowess and bouncing, springy rhythmic joy. His pitch is impeccable, timing spot-on, and if the listener pays close enough attention, Bub will reward him or her with a musical trick pulled from his seemingly endless bag: a slap fill to punctuate a particularly funny O’Brien lyric; a switch in rhythm that helps enforce the articulation of a complex banjo roll; or, this critic’s favorite, a slinky little glissando that covers about the same distance as a whiskey shiver.

Ensuring the band was indeed playing bluegrass was banjoist Patrick Sauber. A native of the West Coast, Sauber’s tone favors depth and warmth. Truly pleasing sound married with a lovely open harmonic texture provided an easy listening experience in a small room. Perhaps equally as pleasing was his flatpicking. Everyone was hoping O’Brien would play a little mandolin, and Sauber was kind enough to pick a little guitar on “Nellie Kane” so O’Brien could oblige. Sauber supports as a wonderful accompanist.

O’Brien is a fantastic fiddle player, so it would only make sense for him to hire the best he could. And Shad Cobb did not disappoint. Cobb’s bow arm is a swooping, slurping bird of prey, scooping blues licks and fast flurries straight off the fingerboard. Cobb and O’Brien dazzled with the head of “Three Thin Dimes.” It was furious duet playing at its best, and the turning point for everyone to loosen up. Cobb’s interpretation of “Where the River Meets The Road,” the title track from O’Brien’s newest record, was Appalachian-grit-meets-cosmopolitan-style.

Rounding out the ensemble and serving as everything from singer to roadie was Jan Fabricius, O’Brien’s life partner who has also been performing with O’Brien for the past two years in a duo setting. Her vocals figure into several tracks on “Where the River Meets the Road.” O’Brien is known for his collaborations with sister Mollie, and these are big shoes to fill. Fabricius’ musical contribution is obviously appreciated by O’Brien, and his respect for her presence is clear from the stage, endearing the couple to audience. The trio singing between Fabricius, O’Brien, and Bub was warm, woody, and clean.

So how long will this lineup of the Tim O’Brien Band last? Hopefully long enough for audiences to catch them all together again. In the interim, pick up “Where the River Meets the Road,” or, as it could alternatively be titled, “Where Tim O’Brien Shows Us the Best of American Roots Music.”

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