Lensic Q&A: Tim O'Brien

Bluegrass great Tim O’Brien joins Ireland’s phenomenal Lúnasa at The Lensic for a foot-stompin’ celebration of traditional Celtic music on February 23, 2018. The Boulder, Colorado-based musician comes to Santa Fe fresh off the first leg of a 40th-anniversary tour with his longtime bluegrass band, Hot Rize. But for O’Brien, whose great-grandfather was born in Ireland, playing with Lúnasa is a journey back to where it all began. 

Your shows with Lúnasa are billed as explorations of “the common roots” at the heart of American and Irish music. How are the two genres connected?
The traditional music you hear in the United States is a direct replica of the music that came with the settlers from Europe and the British Isles, as early as the 1600s. The immigrants who came to America kept their music close to them, even though they were far away from home. Music went on to develop slightly differently on this continent. The African influence that came in the New World is undeniable. 

 Both Irish and American roots music have that toe-tapping quality . . .
The rhythms are similar—they’re infectious! They’re both designed to make people dance, so there’s a reason you’re feeling that.

Are there other similarities we’ll notice?
There is common ground in the ballads, the story-songs that are almost like myth. They tell the same stories, over and over, and they never go out of style because these stories are life lessons. . . Irish music is exotic and familiar at the same time. So much of traditional American culture came out of the British Isles. I think we play the same music, but with an American accent.

How did you start playing with Lúnasa?
I remember Lúnasa’s first record, in the late 1990s.  It was bold and innovative; more youthful and enthusiastic than a lot of other Irish music. It had an edge. I’d see [Lúnasa’s] Seán Smyth and Trevor Hutchinson at music festivals, and we’d play for fun offstage. I first toured with Trevor and another mutual friend, as a trio. Then, a couple of years ago, he called me about doing some gigs with Lúnasa during the St. Paddy’s Day season.

You came to The Lensic with Lúnasa on that first tour, in 2016.
I remember! Santa Fe audiences are great, for any kind of music. The people in mountain towns are open-minded, and they’re up for a good time.

Any recommendations for our music-loving audience? What do you listen to when you’re not onstage?
I tend to listen to old field recordings—old stuff like Frank Hutchison and Seamus Ennis. I’m interested in anything Randy Newman and Greg Brown have to say. And in recent years I’ve really liked a guy who is originally from Northern New Mexico, Cahalen Morrison. He’s now based in Seattle, and his band is called Western Centuries. He writes what seem like old songs, but they are literary and fresh and really good. 

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