in performance: tim o’brien/ron block

ron block.

ron block.

The prime appeal within a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour is revealed when the program’s invited guests collaborate. It doesn’t happen often and when it does, the alliances tend to form quickly and briefly during encore segments.

Last night, though, bluegrass stalwarts Tim O’Brien and Ron Block, each promoting new indie solo albums, sat in with each other for a trio of tunes that capitalized on string music’s longstanding love of camaraderie. All three songs came during banjoist/guitarist Block’s segments where O’Brien, a versed multi-instrumentalist, played fiddle. The catalyst for such bonding was Block’s new all-instrumental recording Hogan’s House of Music, a work with roots in pre-bluegrass country instrumentation although it was by no means defined by that.

With guitarist Clay Hess rounding the tunes the two headliners played together as well as those executed by Block on his own, the instrumentation touched on traditional bluegrass but regularly veered into more progressive jazz-like phrasing, as in The Spotted Pony. There, O’Brien filled the fiddle seat that Block’s musical boss, Alison Krauss, occupied on the album. Sporting splendid tone, the trio took the tune at a pace far more relaxed than its more new grass-leaning predecessor Smartville, which Block and Hess played in a duo setting. A lively take of Brushy Fork at John’s Creek (done as a trio piece) and a beautifully lyrical take on Stephen Foster’s Gentle Annie (done as a guitar duet) cemented the graceful and very complete string music vocabulary of Block’s fine new record.

Only the trio encore of the Jimmy Martin staple You Don’t Know My Mind Today stepped out of the serene instrumental atmosphere for a round of traditional bluegrass with Hess on vocals.

O’Brien devoted all five of the songs from his sets, performed with partner Jan Fabricius as vocal accompanist, to music from his first solo album in four years, Pompadour. The resulting performances were streamlined to a stylistic degree when compared to the record’s considerable instrumental reach. But there was a strong emotive shift between the song’s storylines.

I Gotta Move contemplated the aftermath of divorce, Whatever Happened to Me proved a self-effacing view of aging, Pompadour’s title track reflected pure narrative whimsy and the encore of Go Down to the River revisited one of the many Mermaid Avenue works that Billy Bragg and Wilco fashioned around the words of Woody Guthrie.

But the highlight was The Water is Wise, a gorgeous tale of renewal co-penned by Sarah Jarosz that sounded like a traditional folk meditation given the rustic slant of O’Brien’s singing and the devilish, though unassuming richness of his guitar work.



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