Geez, I realized last night that I'd better watch out. No one can touch the Grateful Dead of course (the last time we saw Tim O'Brien I loved his comment that he had always struggled to find traditional tunes to play that neither Doc Watson nor the Grateful Dead hadn't done first), but after last night I've seen Tim at least a dozen times ... this is approaching my record of 20 for the GD, and that number isn't growing. I've seen Tim alone, with his sister, with the O'Boys, with Hot Rize (of course), with Darrell Scott, with Steve Earle, with his Cornbread Nation band, etc. I've even seen a band called Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers that had a guy that looked a lot like Tim. Maybe I should stop seeing him play, but then again, maybe I should cut off a leg or two.
Tim played the Me and Thee Coffeehouse at the UU church in Marblehead again last night, and we were there, after the obligatory slog through traffic and fun dinner at Gulu-Gulu in Salem. Got there a little earlier than normal and even though a line had formed already we were still in time to grab seats in the first row.
Old Man Luedecke from Nova Scotia opened (Tim produced his recent album) and showed some very impressive chops on the claw-hammer banjo, as well as showcasing some of his quirky, fresh-perspective songs. He also had an instrument called a porchboard under his left foot and he pounded out the rhythm on that to excellent effect. I talked with him between sets and he was pleased to hear that the porchboard's sound produced an echo that was amplified by the stage ... he couldn't hear this from on top of the stage.
This was a great introduction to Tim naturally, who's got some of the best acoustic chops and quirkiest songs on the planet. Tim came out on stage as soon as Old Man Luedecke finished (he'd actually been watching from the shadow of the door to the sanctuary, like a parent anxiously watching and giving encouragement at his child's first recital). Tim finished the first set with 6-8 songs or so, before he let all us old folkies take a bathroom/dessert break. It was only then that I noticed that the late-arriving crowd had not only filled the main part of the church but had overflowed to fill most of the entrance hall with some chairs rapidly set-up by the crack M&T staff.
Tim was perfect. Oh, he made a couple of small mistakes, but he played exactly what we wanted to hear and he showed us (yet again for me, see above), that he can produce some of the best music around. He had his old guitar with him and he played some tunes on his faithful bouzouki and his fiddle. I've never seen or heard anyone better than him on fiddle and he was masterful on that last night (Chinquapin Hunting/Sugar In the Gourd), but he was feeling it on the guitar and he just rocked through his most complex songs on that. What can I say?
A guy in line (who'd never seen him before) said that he'd be in heaven if Tim played Pretty Fair Maid In the Garden ... he opened with that. I recently listened to his surreal Traveler record and he played Kelly Joe's Shoes and I've Endured, which are two of the best songs on that record. The song I most wanted to hear of his incredible repertoire was Look Down That Lonesome Road (I'd never seen him play that), and he played it, dropping in some jaw-dropping leads. He didn't do his remarkable version of Lamps Trimmed and Burning, but took a gospel bow with Working On a Building, which he did as an homage to Bill Monroe, in his style. Tim also showed his remarkable ability as a singer-songwriter with his beautiful ode to his father (Not Afraid Of Dying) and his beautiful song about knowing your children are out there in the world, and struggling with the emotional meaning of that (Letter In the Mail). This is not to mention his ability to tell stories about working, history, and human relationships, as showcased in My Girl's Waiting For Me and his version of the traditional Love Is Pleasing.
Again, what can I say? Tim walked off stage when he was done and we gave him a bit of applause. He'd brought Old Man Luedecke back up and they (along with Old Man's mandolinist, Joel Hunt) did a great cover of Lightfoot's Early Morning Rain, and then Tim encored solo with his cover of Woody Guthrie's Buffalo Skinners, with its raw, murderous denouement. We watched him walk off into the wings of the M&T and I was thinking that this is a musician I'll be going to see as long as I can, who cares if he edges out the Dead?