Blog | Telluride Report: Chickens

“Chicken & Egg” is the title on my new CD. A few weeks ago a friend discovered a visual artist named Tim O’Brien who has a painting named “Chicken and the Egg.” Very cool. View the painting at

My summer issue of “Goldenseal” arrived last Tuesday. It’s a magazine dedicated to West Virginia folk life, and the cover picture is a rooster with “Chickens!” in large type above it.

Arriving backstage at Telluride, I noticed the dressing rooms were decorated with pictures of, you guessed it, chickens!

And while driving through Montrose on the way back from Telluride yesterday, we passed a Mexican takeout place called “Pollo Azado” (roast chicken in Spanish). Of course standing outside, beckoning to customers, was a guy dressed in a chicken suit. Of course it was June 21st, the longest day of the year, so there was more room than any other day for chicken sightings.

So maybe the chicken does come before the egg. Then again, I start most days out with a fried egg and almost never eat chicken in flesh form before or during breakfast. But are you seeing more chickens out there folks? There’s a recent trend where city folks are starting to keep chickens again. There are chickens in the new CD’s photography, mostly because they were there at my neighbor’s place, and willing models. Let me know what you’re seeing out there.

Telluride wrap up: Imelda Mae was killer. The Dublin girl sang her rockabilly heart out, and her band was smoking. I particularly liked her drummer who reminded me of old style TV show house band guys who can play anything. Other highlights included the David Rawlings Machine, Vasen, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the Punch Brothers. Mumford and Sons and Brandi Carlisle were new to me and very good. So was Lyle Lovett of course. I got my first look at the amazing tabla drumming of Zakir Hussain. Wow! He often played a percussive and melodic twin to Bela Fleck’s banjo on Saturday night. On the house band set, I particularly enjoyed a new composition from Edgar Meyer. After four days in Telluride, I always have a dry throat and a tired body.

I have some time off now until July 2nd when I’m playing the Grand Ole Opry. You can listen online at

Blog | Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2010

Hot Rize played a 50th wedding anniversary party on Monday at Denver’s wonderful Mercury Café. Then we took a stab at recording the next day at out old stomping grounds Colorado Sound studios. We recorded a version of “Wichita Lineman”, an old time piece called “Diamond Joe” (recorded by Charlie Butler in 1937), a Nick Forster instrumental called “Runty”, and a Pete Wernick banjo tune called “Spring Break”.

I think this is actually my 33nd Telluride Bluegrass festival. Thursday morning, I introduced Sarah Jarosz and then sat in with her, singing “Tell Me True” and playing fiddle on Kate Wolf’s “Telluride” to kick off the festival. The crew put up some new semi-permanent towers for the speakers this year and while it was quite a project, it will make hanging the speaker stack much easier in coming years. Planet Bluegrass staff made some commemorative t-shirts for the occasion, proclaiming 2010 as the “Year of the Big Erection”. My band set was last that night, in high country cool temperatures from 10:30 to midnight. Sarah introduced me, and then she sat in, along with a band including Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Mike Bub, and John Gardner. Other guests included Rob McCoury on banjo, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Dierks Bentley on vocal and guitar – we sang a duet version of “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)”, which is on his new bluegrassy CD “Up On The Ridge.” I played most of the new “Chicken & Egg” material, and the crowd was wonderful.

On Friday at noon, I took the gondola to the Mountain Village to rehearse a song with the Courtyard Hounds. They asked me to sing Jacob Dylan’s part on “See You In The Spring”. Rehearsal was better than the show later that afternoon, but it was fun to sit in with the Dixie Chick sisters and their new band. Hot Rize played right before them and we had fun. Elmo Otto, looking like a much older Sam Bush, sat in with Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers.

Blog | Mark Knopfler North American Tour Begins

The Mark Knopfler tour has begun. The band includes: Mark Knopfler - all kinds of guitars, and vocals on his own stellar songs. Guy Fletcher - keyboards, samples, guitars, and vocals. Guy is the music director, Marks right hand man on stage and in the studio. Danny Cummings - drums and vocals. Richard Bennett - all kinds of guitars, bouzoukis, caviquiño. Glenn Worf - basses Matt Rollings, piano, organ, accordion, and vocals Mike McGoldrick - flute, penny whistle, pipes, cittern Me - fiddle, mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar, bouzoukis, banjo, vocals.

We started with three weeks of rehearsal in London. It was funny staying in the same hotel room for that long. Amazingly, I only had curry about six times, three of them at the Standard Balti house on Brick Lane. Kit came for a visit the last week. On a ten day break between rehearsals and the tour start, I went home and mixed a new record. It's now mastered and the artwork is coming along. Its title is Chicken and Egg, and it features 11 of my new songs, and three covers.
March 13
My roadie is named Kevin Rowe. His great grandparents on his mom's side are East Indian, but moved to the Jamaica, where his dad's family descended from the slave culture. Then his parents moved to the England, so he has an East Indian look, African color. and a British Birmingham accent. He was working most recently with Ray Davies and he's as sweet as can be. Every member of the crew is wonderful and very attentive. I take one instrument off and Kevin hands me the next one, having tuned it and put the capo on the correct fret. Then he makes sure it's turned on. These guys learn the show just like we do. Kevin's also minding bassist Glenn Worf and flute and cittern player Mike McGoldrick. Mark has his own guy who does all his effects. Kerry Lewis is the monitor mixer, A Welshman. He has eight separate mixes for the band plus a few more, and each song is programmed specially, so if it's a quieter song, or a louder song, or whatever the variables could be, he adjusts the mix to your needs. It's getting better daily. The custom molded in ear-monitors act like earplugs, shutting out ambient noise (drums, electric guitars), so it's pretty well manageable. Dave Dixon on he front of house mix is doing the same with programming the mixes as we rehearse.

I'm playing Richard Bennett's '54 telecaster, through Mark's Fender Vibroverb, but today i needed a really shitty, dirty overdriven sound with extreme tremolo for a killer chilled out song called Coyote, so they brought out a little five watt Marshall. We turned it all the way up and i get this really sparse but crucial part. Just one more detail to handle. Many more to go, of course, but we've learned about eighteen songs.

Day off tomorrow. Road manager Pete McKay is trying to get us a private tour of the Tower of London, after it closes. There's some sort of elaborate key ceremony he says we should see, where they lock all the doors and turn them over to the night staff. (As long as they don't lock us in there&.) There's a solo Bach competition at the library a block away, from I think 10am to 6pm. I might check that out. I need to review the detail of the week. I have my fiddle and guitar in the room, plus a ukulele that my English friend Phil Davidson just made for me. There's a lot of little fiddle and flute lines to remember. I have a hard time remembering each piece, particularly a couple days later. We've been going back over most stuff each day, practicing groups of two or three songs and the transitions between them. Its not like we can start them over when the tour starts. Most of these guys have been in the band since 96, so Mike and I are new guys and the vets are sympathetic to our steep climb on the learning curve. Im learning intimately that less is more. I hope to slowly acquire a level of discipline that's rarely been required or exercised in my normal situation in the past thirty years as a pro.

Okay, I'm meeting Richard Bennett in the pub across the street.

April 10

The plane takes off like a rocket, sorta shooting up into the sky. There are three sections - Mark and Guy face each other on the right front side, there's an aisle in the center, with Danny and Richard on the opposite side. Middle section of four clustered around a dinette table with aisle to one side is myself and Glenn facing backwards, Mike and Matt facing forward. Paul Crockford, Tim Hook, and Pete McKay -manager and road managers - are in a sorta back room by the toilet. We were handed bottles of water and newspapers at our seats and then after takeoff here comes sushi. And more sushi in case you wanted it. And the stewardess took drink orders for the trip after the show. We get there and the drinks are poured and waiting. After takeoff, Chinese food.

The flight from Seattle to Vancouver provided stunning views of the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound, and occasional peeks at snow capped peaks to the east. That was my first flight on a private jet.

Another less amazing but still notable first was the electric mirror in my Seattle hotel bathroom. A remote control sat by the sink, so I pushed the on button, and CNN came on in the mirror. Somehow it's about a second and a half behind the TV in the room itself.

After the gigs these first few nights, we've adjourned to the hotel bar for band meetings. Recapping the show and what could be tighter, how it's pace could adjust with a slightly different set list, monitor problems, lighting, everything is up for analysis. Mark really cares about it getting it right so we can dig deeper into the groove and do the best we possibly can.

Last night's set: Border Riever - I play a fiddle tuned up a half step to make Scottish sounds in C minor. What It Is - normal tuned fiddle, more Scot's licks in unison with Mark's electric guitar and Mike McGoldrick's whistle.

Sailing To Philadelphia - I sing the part of Charles Mason to Mark's Jeremiah Dixon, play Nugget bouzouki.

Cleaning My Gun - my part is Mark's recorded finger picked telecaster, against Richard Bennetts Burns electric 12 string, while Mark sings and plays fills on his electric.

Coyote - I switch from a fender Vibroverb to a little Marshall with radical tremolo (driven by that nasty back pickup), and play a sparse but essential arpeggio on the chorus, and whole note tremolo chords throughout.

Hill Farmer - back to the Fender and both pickups. Another third chair electric part played with pickup switch in middle position. I'm using Richard's 54 Tele because it's just a lot better sounding than mine.

I sit out Romeo and Juliet and Sultans Of Swing, get my banjo ready for: Marbletown - Ome banjo clawhammer style. Mark on small bodied Martin. There's a jam on most songs toward the end. On this one, Mark and I play off of one another, and then Mike joins in, we end up in a reel I don't know the name of, and then it somehow concludes.

Remembrance Day - techs bring out stools for Richard and me. He's on Strat and I'm on Mark's D-42, playing a twin finger picking rhythm part while Mark remembers and plays fills. Speedway To Nazareth - back to banjo on a Highland kinda song melody, with lyrics about NASCAR. Marks got a Les Paul, and Richard starts the song on an acoustic, but toward the end there's jam again, and he switches to his Les Paul and makes a dramatic power chord entrance. It's the roar of a high performance race care engine in musical form and Im this little plinky thing between their throbbing solid bodies& This makes Mark smile every time.

Telegraph Road - this one is a mini pop rock symphony about the progress of civilization. Mike and I play a double cittern and bouzouki part (I'm on the Giacomel) that sparkles under the vocal at times, other times we're tacit.

We go off stage, knowing we'll play encores. There are beers and wine glasses and margaritas, and a non-alcoholic drink for Matt Rollings. We get ready for the finish: Brothers In Arms - I play sparkly mando arpeggios, twinning Richard's finger picked part. Shangri-La - I'm back on the Giacomel, strumming an island groove, singing high baritone. We all come center stage and take bows and of course the crowd wants more. We confer and check the time, and then play:

Local Hero - Nugget mandolin chords.

Piper To The End - another Scottish fiddle and whistle part, on a song about Mark's late uncle, a piper in World War II.

As we leave the stage, we take our in ear monitors and receiver packs, put them in tubs with our names on them. Road manager Pete McKay hands us our jackets, having already taken our carryon bags to the cars. In about three minutes we're rolling toward the airport, and soon right to the door of the jet. On this flight I can leave my Swiss army knife in my pocket. When we land in Portland 40 minutes later, a customs agent comes on board and clears us through.

I need to thank Brad Inserra for his hospitality at his Swing Side Café on the night of our Seattle tech run through. The whole band plus road mangers went there on the 7th. Perfect oysters in ponzu sauce, bean salad, tripe stew, calamari in earthy sauce, and the mushroom and lobster risotto sealed the deal. A private mini concert by the Spoonshine duo ended it. Thanks also to Orville Johnson and John Orleman for the dim sum in Chinatown.

My interest piqued by Mark's song Sailing To Philadelphia I've started reading Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon.

Blog | Hot Rize Colorado

Announcement in the Denver airport: "Will the person who left the book entitled "Using Both Side Of Your Brain" in the gate area please come retrieve it?"

Question from Rich Moore during my concert in the Salina Colorado one room schoolhouse: "Why is the wall clock stopped at 4:20?"

The two question all humans ask, according to an elderly woman in Elizabeth Gilbert's book "Eat Pray Love":  "How much do you love me?" and "Who's in charge?"

My Hot Rize band mate Pete Wernick used to talk about type one error verses type two error. Type one error is where you fail to consider all the options and parameters of a situation and then of course that situation gets the better of you. Type two error is where you exhaustively study all those options and parameters, and plan accordingly, only to be outsmarted by unforeseen, random factors. In my adult life I have danced a tightrope between the two types of error. Last week, I was to fly to Telluride, but the night before heard from my host there, Dave Lamb, that a big storm was brewing for that day and that I might do well to fly to Cortez instead. The airline that provided my service to Telluride normally reroutes into Cortez and it's a lot easier to land there, and being at lower elevation it's less plagued by weather problems. I looked into doing that but because of the nature of my booking, it was impossible to do much until I got to Denver. So I let it slide. As it turned out, Cortez airport closed that day with a foot of snow, while Telluride remained open with clear weather. Had I succeeded in rebooking to Cortez ahead of time, I would have committed type two error. Thanks to the rigidity of modern air travel, I avoided that. However, I may have committed type two error on my return flight a few days later. A storm was predicted for southwest Colorado, heavy snowfall and 70 mile per hour winds. My flight and my cousin Charlie's flight were both scheduled for early afternoon. In the early morning, there was no great rate of snowfall and no winds, but we couldn't predict how it would be by the time we were to leave. Meanwhile, we realized that my cousin could fly from Grand Junction to meet his connecting flight, and as the storm would not get there until much later than to Telluride, we made a judgment to rebook him from there. I was headed to a gig near Boulder, and wanted to get there, even if it meant driving. Dave ended up driving me from Grand Junction and I made the gig. I know it snowed 15 inches in Telluride, but I don't know if out flights went, so I don't know if I committed any errors that day.

All of which is to say, if you want to learn patience, and learn that no matter how hard you plan, you might still be in trouble, try traveling.

The gigs were nice, and I got two days on the ski mountain at Telluride. Dave and Karen Lamb were wonderful hosts.

Now I'm on the way to Glasgow, for another round of Celtic Connections. Post festival, a group of 20 will tour around as the Transatlantic Concert. Watch for us in Birmingham, Manchester, London, Belfast, and Gateshead, as well as on BBC Folk Awards whenever it airs.

I saw a wonderful concert at the Belcourt in Nashville on January 13th. Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller, Dennis Crouch, Jay Bellerose. Wow. Ribot sang "Dang Me"! I met Bill, who, like me, studied with Dale Bruning in Denver. Sweet man.

Also, I've been in the studio making a new record, or recording anyway. I know some of you will buy it. Cool. Mostly, I'm happy doing some new material. I had a nice crew in there. Stuart Duncan, Mike Bub, John Gardner, Bryan Sutton, and "LA Dennis" Crouch. Dave Ferguson engineered.

Now for a nice seven-hour flight to Glasgow.


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.