The Grammy Award-winning O’Connor Band is returning to Meany Center for the Performing Arts Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 16 and 17, for the group’s second year in a row performing “An Appalachian Christmas.”
There’s nothing like a little success to complicate life.
That’s certainly been the lesson learned in 2017 by the O’Connor Band, which is returning to Meany Center Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 16 and 17, for the group’s second year in a row performing “An Appalachian Christmas.”
The two-year-old musical partnership of renowned fiddler-composer Mark O’Connor — titan of Americana, i.e., a style bridging progressive bluegrass and singer-songwriter country-folk — and his violinist wife, Maggie O’Connor; son and mandolinist Forrest O’Connor; and the latter’s wife, violinist Kate Lee O’Connor, has faced some enviable problems.
O’Connor Band’s “An Appalachian Christmas”
8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16-17 at Meany Center for the Performing Arts, University of Washington, Seattle. $39-$57 (206-543-4880 or firstname.lastname@example.org)
Such as: how do you follow up your Grammy Award-winning first record (Best Bluegrass Album, for 2016’s “Coming Home”), which also debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s bluegrass chart?
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“Getting a Grammy was a kick-start,” says Seattle native and current Charlotte, North Carolina, resident Mark O’Connor, who also won a Grammy for his 1991 solo release, “The New Nashville Cats,” and another for the 2000 “Appalachian Journey” (with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer).
“Now we’re putting together pieces of the puzzle about where the O’Connor Band is going, what to do next. But winning answered a question for some people about the quality of my family as musicians. Did I just do this because I wanted to perform with them? Can they really play and sing? That’s settled now.”
The O’Connor Band began in a measured way when Mark asked Forrest — a Harvard graduate whose college group, the Hay Brigade, played public radio’s “The World” and “A Celtic Sojourn” — to join him on a tour. Mark met Maggie (nee Dixon), a Peabody Conservatory postgraduate student and virtuoso, when she asked him for a lesson. They married, and Maggie joined the road ensemble.
Kate — a solo recording artist and versatile session musician for Rod Stewart, Keith Urban and Mary J. Blige — began writing and playing with Forrest as the duo Wisewater. She soon became the fourth pillar in an O’Connor quartet (Kate and Forrest married last April), the core group supported by guitarist Joe Smart and bassist Geoff Saunders.
The warm and spirited “Coming Home,” with songs written and sung by Forrest and Kate (who can really wail when she lets loose), was followed by an 80-date tour in 2016. This year saw an almost equal number of stops and the release of the exciting “O’Connor Band Live!,” with loads of eclectic material including classics “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and even “Johnny B. Goode.”
Following several pre-Christmas concerts around the Northwest, the group resumes touring the nation in January through June. Mark, artist-in-residence for the Charlotte Symphony and typically a multitasker juggling classical composition, swing jazz, Americana and education endeavors, says that’s just the tip of the iceberg for 2018. For now, the O’Connor Band is his focus.
“If you’re going to have a band,” he says, “you have to put everything in and all else becomes a distant second. Of all the members, I had the most to push aside, and the others respected that. It takes commitment to artistry and getting out there and developing an audience.”
Part of that intense focus is agreeing on strategies: the band choosing the right management, record label, concert venues, and the right schedule of release for new music.
“We are in a hurry to get our music out there,” Mark says. “I think our fans are hungry to share in the band’s progress.”
The Meany shows will largely be different from last year’s “An Appalachian Christmas” program. For one thing, Mark’s guitar playing will be more prominent.
“People love it,” he says. “We’ll play an extended jam/journey with Joe and I on guitars.”
Mark and Forrest will play mandolins on a rendition of “Sleigh Ride,” and there will be a “gorgeous mash-up” of Mark’s celebrated “Appalachia Waltz” and “Silent Night.”
The band recently produced a live Christmas performance for National Public Radio, with hopes a Seattle station picks it up for local broadcast.
“There’s such a golden, family feeling at these concerts,” Mark says. “That includes audiences participating, giving and receiving with us.”
This story was corrected at 11 a.m. Friday, Dec. 15, to reflect that Sunday’s showtime is at 2 p.m.