You never quite know which Tim O'Brien is going to make an appearance: fiddle slinger, folk singer-songwriter, bluegrass maverick, or Celtic-crosser, half of a dynamic duo or as part of an ensemble such as Hot Rize and (briefly) The Earls of Leicester.
With Tim O'Brien Band (no 'the', just like Ramones) you get all the Tim O'Briens, and a new band ta boot. Much like his satisfying Short Order Sessions-a set of forty singles released monthly over the course of three years-individual tracks may not be consistent sonically, but they hold together based on their common connection-intimate, acoustic performances of songs, new and familiar.
Mike Bub (bass), Shad Cobb (fiddle), and Patrick Sauber (guitar/banjo) join O'Brien (guitar, mandolin, fiddle) and harmony vocalist Jan Fabricius (mandolin) on this new journey. O'Brien's voice is front and center, but the bluegrass vets he has chosen to work with are top-notch and bring no shortage of memorable contributions to the album.
O'Brien has always been attracted to the Doc Watson way of doing things-Watson was his original inspiration to explore old-time and folk music-and "Tim O'Brien Band" has the feel of those Folkways Doc Watson Family recordings. One can envision the principals sitting around a front room, sharing songs on Arrow Back chairs.
There are songs familiar included, the presentation fresh and varied. The Celtic shade of things is apparent within "Doney Gal" and "Hop Down Reel/Johnny Doherty's Reel," the former a maudlin range song, the latter an amalgam of spirited tunes. "Wind," like "Doney Gal," contains Celtic connections and a Western theme.
Bluegrass is the unifying force, a music that O'Brien favours but which he seemingly approaches from the side. Having a command of traditional music as O'Brien does, he still seldom engages the music fully and completely: his folk, Celtic, old-time, and country shades hold sway.
Dirk Powell's "My Love Lies in the Ground," the blues standard "Diggin' My Potatoes," and a new Dan Auerbach/O'Brien composition "Amazing Love" are all essentially bluegrass songs, but not the Flatt & Scruggs or even Seldom Scene variety. The album's highlight may be the group's take on Norman Blake's "Last Train From Poor Valley;" the lonesome core of this often-encountered, plaintive piece is on full display within this interpretation.
Fabricius takes the lead on the breezy "The Other Woman." O'Brien handles the rest of the leads, with "Beyond," a Shawn Camp-O'Brien co-write, being a prototypically-strong vocal exercise.
The energetic "Crooked Road" appeared, in different form, on O'Brien's "Chameleon" album, and "Drunkard's Waltz" was first heard as an S.O.S. track. I am certain I've previously heard O'Brien interpret Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty," but the song has seldom been timelier. The group cuts loose on this track, one of the more up-tempo numbers included.
Tim O'Brien doesn't take the conventional route on this album; he seldom has during a recording career that extends back forty-some years. Establishing a new band and path, obstinately bluegrass but with all other flavours mix in, is just the latest bold move made by one of Americana's most compelling artists. "Tim O'Brien Band" isn't his strongest album, but it is his latest: good new there!