Tim O’Brien & The O’Boys – Abbey Pub (Chicago, IL)
When bluegrass picker Tim O’Brien told his mother of his plans to record an album of Bob Dylan songs, she replied, “When did he die?” It’s all right, ma, Dylan is still very much alive — and his vast oeuvre continues to attract diverse musicians and fans, as evidenced by this gig.
O’Brien opened with a loose version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, from his all-Dylan-penned collection of last year, Red on Blonde. O’Brien occasionally elongated certain words in the song, a slight nod to Dylan’s trademark vocal style. The evening featured fine interpretations of several Dylan tunes, including “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “The Wicked Messenger”, and a beautiful, deliberate “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”. An early highlight was “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, featuring O’Brien on mandolin and Mark Schatz on body parts, as he pulled a Bobby McFerrin routine by slapping his thighs, chest and cheeks to provide percussion.
The Dylan tunes provoked the strongest reaction from the crowd, partially because O’Brien sang them with more verve than when performing original material. He clearly enjoyed ripping through the tumbling rhymes of “Tombstone Blues”, singing: “Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll/Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole/And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul.”
O’Brien demonstrated his great chops throughout the evening, playing fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. O’ Boys Scott Nygaard (guitar) and Mark Schatz (standup bass, banjo) were also terrific, and the band operated like a well-worn butter churn, making music that was sweet and just a little greasy. Local fiddler Casey Driessen, who is only 18, sat in for a number of tunes, playing with an authority that belied his youth.
The musicians also paid their respects to Bill Monroe, the late father of bluegrass, with fiery versions of “Jerusalem Ridge” and “Blue Night”. The first set ended with a surprising gem — Peter Case’s “Ice Water”, which Nygaard recorded on his latest album.
O’Brien is a talented songwriter in his own right, as evidenced by “One Way Street” and “Lonely at the Bottom, Too”. He introduced “Walk the Way the Wind Blows” by joking that the song had bought him several major appliances, referring to his royalty checks from Kathy Mattea’s version.
The high point of the concert was a pair of songs late in the second set. For the instrumental “Soldier’s Joy”, Nygaard’s guitar complemented the weaving dual fiddles of O’Brien and Driessen. As the crowd clapped in unison, Schatz demonstrated Appalachian clogging by dancing atop a wooden sign he had laid onstage. Following this rousing number, O’Brien delivered a passionate version of “Workin’ on a Building”, which he performed solo. His fiddle cast a spell on the audience, and O’Brien’s yearning, heartfelt vocals were the very essence of bluegrass.
Like the Del McCoury Band, Tim O’Brien & the O’Boys are bringing traditional bluegrass to a broader audience by interpreting rock songs. And it’s working. Many of the fans at this show walked in the door humming Dylan but walked out singing Monroe.