Tim O'Brien

Two Journeys

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Itinerant American folk musician Tim O'Brien has been on a tear since 1996's Red on Blonde, bluegrass interpretations of Bob Dylan songs (and don't laugh, it stands as one of the very finest Dylan tributes ever recorded). Since that time he has issued collaborations with Dirk Powell and John Hermann (Songs From the Mountain -- inspired by the novel Cold Mountain) and Darrell Scott (Real Time), as well as issuing the original inspiration for this recording, The Crossing in 1999, which offered a rootsy musician's ear-view of how Irish music informed the folk traditions of the American South and found a home in a mutated yet no less soulful form. Two Journeys is The Crossing's mirror image. This album shows O'Brien -- and a company of the British Isles and American South's finest musicians -- looking toward the coastlines of Ireland to express those traditions as they prepared to leave the homeland for the "new world." Digging deep into his own bag of folk songs, traditional ballads, and a few slick bluegrass moves, O'Brien has managed to tell a story, mostly with his own songs, of the cultural miscegenation that took place in the vast Irish exodus during and after the potato famine. From the opening track, "Turning Around," we hear the song of a captain in the middle of the Atlantic, looking back on the homeland with a sense of loss, regret, and heartbreak, and toward the new with a shred of hope, fear, and trepidation. This leads into the glorious swagger of "Mick Ryan's Lament" by Robert Lee Dunlap. The tune extrapolates "Garryowen," George Custer's marching song that was likely his final one at Little Big Horn. And then we're off, deep into the middle ground of a sea rife for the picking with fiddle tunes, jigs, reels, bluegrass, folk-blues and Celtic soul. With help from the aforementioned Yankees, and Paddy Keenan on uilleann pipes, traditional percussionist Kevin Burke, keyboard work from Triona No Drohmnaill, and the vocal support of Karan Casey and Maura O'Connell, O'Brien doesn't merely create facsimiles of Irish songs, but showcases the log, knotty rope between traditions, being not part one or the other but fully both. The most moving track on the disc, and also its most spooky, is "Demon Lover," a duet between O'Brien and Casey. It's a ballad so old it nearly dates antiquity, the rendering here, which doesn't even resemble modern versions, is chock full of pathos, lust, and regret. This may very well be his finest outing.

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