in performance: o’connor band


O’Connor Band. Back row: Joe Smart, Forrest O’Connor, Geoff Saunders. Front row: Maggie O’Connor, Mark O’Connor, Kate Lee O’Connor.

In a career where he has performed bluegrass, new grass, swing, classical music and more in myriad concert settings and band configurations, Mark O’Connor has more than earned the right to settle down with his family in a string band bearing his name.

In essence, that is what the pioneering fiddler and composer did by designing the O’Connor Band, a unit containing his wife, son and daughter-in-law playing a repertoire that leans to the kind of contemporary bluegrass where clean, melodic strides glide purposely into country turf.

That was certainy lpart of the intent behind the O’Connor Band’s performance last night at Transylvania University’s Haggin Auditorium. By way of introduction, the bandleader, wife Maggie O’Connor, daughter-in-law Kate Lee O’Connor (all on fiddle), son Forrest O’Connor (on mandolin) and the exemplary support of guitarist Joe Smart and bassist/banjoist Geoff Saunders performed light, polite bluegrass-hued pop tunes drawn primarily from the band’s Grammy winning debut album “Coming Home.”

The construction and delivery of the songs (“Always Do” and “Old Black Creek,” in particular) were efficient with Lee O’Connor exhibiting a vocal charm not unlike that of Alison Krauss. The solos peppering the music, most of which father/bandleader O’Connor commandeered, consistently elevated the ensemble’s stylistic scope. But this was material that clearly strived for mainstream appeal within its family friendly makeup. It was when the O’Connor Band put its pop smarts on the back burner and called upon the deeper stylistic demands of its leader’s string music heritage that the performance really caught fire.

Curiously, the two works best exhibiting this reached back to the 1989 album “The Telluride Sessions,” which O’Connor cut with a pack of new grass all-stars dubbed Strength in Numbers. Equally odd was the fact neither work put had him touching a fiddle at all.

The first, “Macedonia,” placed him on mandolin aside son Forrest and guitarist Smart for a light dance melody that was more akin to Eastern European folk music than bluegrass or pop. The tour-de-force, though, was a 20-plus minute revision of “Slopes,” which divided the band into various solo, duo and group settings with O’Connor on guitar and Smart as a very capable-co-pilot.

The program ended on similar terrain with “A Bowl of Bula,” an instrumental from O’Connor’s 1991 album “The New Nashville Cats” that began as a twin mandolin romp and ended with three joyous, unison fiddles. It was a fitting coda to a program that wagered its appeal on inviting vocal tunes but delivered the instrumental goods in a big way once its audience was hooked.

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