Blog | Hardly Strictly 10/2009

Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadows was packed with about 100K music fans during the peak hours of this year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. Today's paper estimated that 750 thousand people would attend this year's ninth annual free event.

Yesterday on the west facing Banjo stage, I played a set with Mike Bub, Casey Driessen, Kenny Malone, Darrell Scott, and my sister Mollie O'Brien.

When she lit into a big fat high note on "Shut De Doe," the crowd responded as one with a spontaneous yell, folding the thrill back to us on stage. I also sat in with Steve Martin, who caught his hat in the air after it blew off during his set. Then as the sun disappeared in the west, in 35-degree weather, and wind gusts of 50 miles an hour, I played the final set of the day with Steve Earle's Bluegrass Dukes. Dennis Crouch wedged himself and the bass against the stage, as his instrument was the biggest sail on stage. Late in the set, I grabbed Steve's guitar for a few numbers and was blown back several feet. I was glad to be wearing a Fishing Music ball cap, and a polyester blend All Black's jersey. Still, about 40 minutes into the set, my fingers felt like stones, the only feeling the sting of the strings as they vibrated against the fingertips.

Today I'm playing in Darrell's band for the first set on the Banjo stage. Mid-point in Darrell's set, I looked to my right and saw Robert Plant sitting on the stage skirt, watching us play. I tried my best to ignore him, thinking he might go away. He did.

When it came time for my solo on Darrell's song "With A Memory Like Mine," I closed my eyes and thought of my long lost brother Trip, who died in Viet Nam back in 1968. I got lost in the music and when I finished and looked up, four Canadian geese were flying right over the stage against a clear blue sky. The sight took my breath away.

Several years ago this festival took place during "Fleet Week," a time when US Navy displays its big ships in San Francisco Bay. The Blue Angels flew over the festival grounds several times that year, to Ricky Skaggs' delight, and to Steve Earle's chagrin. I have to admit the geese in formation made less noise, and were a heap more meaningful to me. I decided the four were Trip, my mom, (both former Marines), and Charles Sawtelle, and Frank Edmonson, my departed Hot Rize cohorts.

Blog | Ophelia Swing Band and Wheeling, West Virginia

Ophelia Swing Band recordings resurface!

Those hard to find recordings are now available on iTunes. Just look for the band name in the iTunes store and you'll see both the original bands 1977 release "Swing Tunes of the '30's and '40's" and the second incarnation's 1978 release "Spreadin' Rhythm Around". Both were originally released on the Denver based, now defunct, Biscuit City records.

Ophelia Swing Band was my first full time professional band. We formed in Boulder CO in 1974, and performed around the state with a few forays into Wyoming and South Dakota. In the course of three years, we alternately confounded, delighted, and confused audiences, leaving broken fiddles, wrecked vehicles, and even a horse's head in our wake. The original members were Dan Sadowsky guitar, Duane Webster bass, Linda Joseph fiddle, Washboard Chaz Leary on percussion, and myself on mandolin, fiddle, and guitar. We played at the second and third annual Telluride Bluegrass festivals in '75 and '76. By the spring of '77 I had quit the band and the moved to Minnesota. Returning, newly married, to Colorado in January of '78 to form Hot Rize, I played a few nights with a reformed, horn driven Ophelia Swing Band at the Blue Note in Boulder.

Ophelia was a cross between Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and the Hot Club of France. We played and sang swing music on guitar, fiddle, mandolin, bass, and washboard. Leader Dan Sadowsky later went on to become the ongoing radio personality Pastor Mustard. The pastor was also the MC for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for many years, and now performs in the Aspen Co area. You can download his "Bluegrass with Mustard" podcasts at iTunes. Washboard Chaz is still quite musically active in New Orleans, as well as touring in Europe and the US. You may have seen him on a Kleenex commercial on TV, or on CNN as part of Anderson Cooper's coverage of the Katrina aftermath. Linda Joseph works for the City of Nashville and plays occasionally. Duane Webster is still playing great bass in the Boulder area, and you might have seen him picking in the campground at Winfield Kansas.

Several years back, we got word that the recordings had been released again on Vivid Records in Japan. When I toured there in December of 2006, a music journalist brought all my recordings from day one, including the Ophelia stuff, to the interview in CD form. It was pretty wild. Now the music from both original LP's is available on iTunes as downloads. I'm listening as I write this, and I think the recordings, while betraying old and cloudy recording technology, wear pretty well. We payed a lot of attention to the arrangements, attempting to compress big band call and response riffs into a small string band. We illustrate that approach pretty well on "Okay Toots". I'm playing my old Nugget mandolin on a lot of it. I sing one song on the first release – a cover of the Bob Wills tune "Mean Woman With The Green Eyes." There's scat singing, twin fiddles, even choral speaking!

There's still a missing piece to this story, and that's my missing first solo LP, also released on Biscuit City in 1978. Let's hope that one comes out as well. The three releases are of a piece, and my solo disc "Guess Who's In Town" is something of a bridge to what came after, featuring the Ophelias as well as Pete Wernick and Charles Sawtelle who would soon ask me to help start a new band called Hot Rize.

September 23, 2009

I'm in my hometown of Wheeling WV, about to rehearse for my first gig with a symphony orchestra. My dad is in the hospital, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that he'll get out in time to attend the show.

The Wheeling Symphony is the oldest musical organization in the state of West Virginia, and I was lucky to attend many of their concerts in my high school years. Their home, the beautiful Capitol Theater, was closed the last few years, and is reopening for the concert tomorrow. I'm playing four songs with orchestral arrangements, as well as some songs with bassist Mike Bub, and local hero, guitarist Roger Hoard. Roger's about my age, and was a long time staff guitarist on the Wheeling Jamboree, broadcast every Saturday night on 1170AM, WWVA.

I hope to make some copies of old photographs found during renovation of the theater. They reportedly document the history of the WWVA, which broadcast from the same building as the theater for it's entire history, starting in the late 1920's. More and more, I'm finding inspiration in the history and the people of my old hometown.