Rounder Records 1166100003
I would never have predicted the one-time fiddle wunderkind Mark O’Connor would be leading a family bluegrass band. The O’Connor Band, however, has produced a truly striking album of singular beauty entitled Coming Home. Despite an almost no banjo album, Coming Home is irrefutably bluegrass in rhythm, arrangements, and vocal approach. It even includes a high energy cover of “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man.”
Besides Mark, the O’Connor Band consists of his wife, Maggie, a classically trained violinist, his adult son Forrest on mandolin and vocals, and Forrest’s fiancee Kate Lee, also on violin. A child prodigy like Mark, she has already achieved some note in country music as a musician, singer, and songwriter. Guitar champion Joe Smart and bassist Geoff Saunders, who also plays banjo on one cut, complete the sextet. All six musicians participate in the background vocals.
The playing, of course, is exceptional, marked not just by virtuosity, but by teamwork, too. The three fiddlers work so closely together that they sound as one; the additional violins add depth and rich tone. The senior O’Connor provides the original, album-closing tune “Fiddler Going Home,” and arrangements of two classics, the ancient “Fisher’s Hornpipe” and the Monroe-Baker “Jerusalem Ridge.” The soaring triple-fiddle take on the latter alone is worth owning the CD.
With Kate and Forrest sharing the lead singing, Coming Home, unlike Mark’s many instrumental focused releases, offers nine songs among the dozen tracks. Forrest, whose resemblance to Dad proves remarkable, and Kate each sing lead with a high level of confidence and ability. The younger couple also divide the songwriting between them. He composed four songs, including the title piece, while she co-wrote two with the estimable Pat Alger and one with Jon Weisberger. Both display a powerful facility for writing in the bluegrass idiom. She: Remember all the songs we used to sing / Don’t you want to hear them again? He: Listen young boys, and you young girls / I’m an old man not long for this world.
Kate possesses a sublime voice, except for cutting loose on “Ruby,” she often sounds a bit too close to Alison Krauss. Indeed, a number of arrangements somewhat resemble AKUS. Those quibbles aside, Coming Home delivers strong performances with deeply connected playing on an outstanding collection of songs and tunes. (Rounder Records, 100 N. Crescent Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210, www.rounder.com.)AM