By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
It’s hard to believe it, but the 12th annual Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass festival is just a little over a week away, taking place June 9-11 on Reservoir Hill right here in Pagosa Springs.
Another terrific musical lineup is in store for 2017 including Loudon Wainwright III, The Dustbowl Revival, The Lil’ Smokies, Ten Strings and a Goat Skin, Western Centuries, Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers, The Barefoot Movement, the Luke Bulla Trio, The Last Revel, The Stash! Band, The Heartstring Hunters, Moors and McCumber and this week’s featured artists: The O’Connor Band featuring Mark O’Connor, and Molly Tuttle.
The O’Connor Band
The O’Connor Band’s very first performance took place at the legendary Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan., in 2015. In 2017 — less than a year and a half later — they took home the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album for their debut recording, “Coming Home.”
In a whirlwind 18 months, the band has also performed at the Grammy Awards premiere ceremony, received standing ovations at the Grand Ole Opry and reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Top Bluegrass Albums chart.
They have put together a show unlike any other, one that blends country and pop sensibilities with Americana rawness, bluegrass drive and chamber music sophistication, one that has begun winning over audiences at festivals (AmericanaFest, GreyFox, Four Corners Folk Festival, IBMA and RockyGrass), clubs (Jazz Alley, Dakota Jazz Club), and the world’s premier theaters (Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and Schermerhorn Symphony Center).
“I never expect to like a show — I have been disappointed too many times,” said entertainment lawyer John Mason, who has represented the likes of Shakira and The Beach Boys and is currently working with the band. “However, when I first saw the O’Connor Band, I was stunned. This is the best band I have seen in decades, the best musicians. It was the most entertaining show and the most fun I have had in years.”
Producer Tony Brown, who has worked with the O’Connor Band on new repertoire, concurred with Mason.
“I pride myself as a person with good musical taste,” he said. “The O’Connor Band is almost too good to describe. Excellent abilities in musicianship, stylistic vocals and showmanship beyond compare.”
The O’Connor Band is the product of Mark’s imagination — one that has served him well over the course of his four-decade professional career.
A former child prodigy and national champion on the fiddle, guitar and mandolin, Mark has won numerous Grammys and CMA awards, appeared on hundreds of commercial country albums, collaborated with the likes of Johnny Cash, Wynton Marsalis, Dolly Parton and Yo-Yo Ma, and performed everything from original violin concertos to swing and jazz.
But, until recently, he had not worked on a project quite like this.
“It’s been one of the most surprising and rewarding experiences to perform with my family members on stage,” Mark said. “It’s really exciting to bend these American genres in new ways, combining accessibility with a real depth of musicianship and writing.”
In addition to Mark, the band features his son, Forrest (Harvard graduate and former Tennessee State Mandolin Champion), daughter-in-law Kate (frequent performer on the CMA Awards and CMA Country Christmas shows), and wife Maggie (graduate of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University). The four of them play together as though they have been sharing the stage for many years — and, in some ways, they have.
“We all grew up listening to my dad’s music,” said Forrest, “So in a sense, we’ve been preparing for this band for a majority of our lives.”
The band is rounded out by Joe Smart (national flatpick champion on guitar) and Geoff Saunders (bassist/banjoist extraordinaire and recent graduate of the University of Miami’s Doctor of Musical Arts program).
All six band members possess charisma that, when combined onstage, ensnares audiences from start to finish. All are masters of their instruments, all improvise as readily as they play parts in counterpoint, all can sing and all move about the stage in a free but gripping choreography.
Kate’s beautiful and powerful voice belies her age. Forrest’s songwriting is at once poetic and accessible. Maggie’s violin playing blends effortlessly with her husband’s, so much so that, at times, the two sound like one player. Joe rips solos on the acoustic guitar as though he were playing electric. Geoff arcos high as commandingly as he grooves low. And Mark, of course, does things on the fiddle that has Paganini turning in his grave.
If the band’s first year was a flash flood, their second will be a calculated, steady rise. After exploring their bluegrass roots, the band is spending much of 2017 honing a sound that coheres even more than before, one that leverages the band’s songwriting talent and background in acoustic, country, jazz and classical music in a way that is geared toward wider audiences but is still true to themselves and their roots. With the help of their new creative mentor, Tony Brown, Forrest and Kate are co-writing with some of Nashville’s most adept and insightful songwriters in preparation for the band’s sophomore album, which they plan to release in the near future.
To miss this opportunity to see the O’Connor Band in Pagosa Springs would be a huge mistake. They will perform on the main stage at 7 p.m. on June 10. In addition, band members Mark and Maggie will be co-teaching a fiddle workshop on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m.; Forrest will be co-teaching a mandolin workshop at 3 p.m.; and Joe will be co-teaching a guitar workshop at noon that day.
A virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and award-winning songwriter with a distinctive voice, Tuttle has turned the heads of even the most seasoned industry professionals.
She began performing on stage when she was 11 and recorded her first album, “The Old Apple Tree,” at age 13. Since then, she’s appeared on “A Prairie Home Companion” and at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, was featured on the cover of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, won first place in the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at Merlefest and, last fall, received a Momentum Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Her lovely voice, impeccable guitar playing and sensitive songwriting make her a star on the rise. She has already received more than 2 million YouTube views and is currently gearing up to release her first solo EP. American Songwriter Magazine says that Tuttle “sings with the gentle authority of Gillian Welch, yet plays astoundingly fleet flat-picking guitar like Chet Atkins on superdrive.”
Her rapid-fire bluegrass guitar work, sweet voice and barn-storming songwriting are sure to blow away the crowd when Tuttle plays the main stage on June 10 at 2:30 p.m. She’ll also be featured on the festival’s late-night stage on June 9 at 10 p.m.
Want to volunteer?
We may well still be looking for a few more volunteers; working two four-hour shifts earns you free three-day admission. Jobs take place before, during and after the festival. Volunteering at a FolkWest event is a fantastic way to meet people from Pagosa Springs and beyond. More info can be found at www.folkwest.com/pfb-volunteer.
Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass is supported in part with funding from Colorado Creative Industries. Tickets and information about the festival can be found online at www.folkwest.com or by calling (877) 472-4672.