Colin O'Brien / Press

"Colin O'Brien's vocals convey more years than he has lived"

“O’Brien played guitar, violin and banjo, sometimes playing along on a harmonica or tapping out the rhythm with his foot on a rectangle of wood hooked up to an amplifier. O’Brien and Witty rolled through songs like the classic “Big River Blues” while a group of four people improvised a square dance, hooting and clapping. The set list came naturally, with the musicians discussing what to play next as they went along. They covered the “Bullfrog Shuffle” by Bela Fleck and a song by old-time Appalachian folk musician Hobart Smith. They played “Banjo on my Mind,” which O’Brien also plays with his band Salt Creek. The two players trotted through a fun set of easygoing bluegrass, displaying their familiarity with the art of toe-tapping music. ”

“Thanks in large part to the jam scene’s interest, bluegrass has been stretched in some very untraditional directions over the last decade. Milwaukee’s Salt Creek is among those breaking the unwritten conventions of the genre, but they don’t abide strictly by the rules of jam music, either, relying instead on the interplay of two musicians born into different schools: Banjoist Colin O’Brien, a classically trained guitarist, and bassist Guy Fiorentini, who cut his teeth in Milwaukee’s ’90s punk scene. The quartet, which also leans on the easy guitar work of Jim Eannelli and the unusually prominent (at least for bluegrass) drums of Eric Radloff, tonight celebrates the release of its latest album, Live!”

“Colin O’Brien’s songs are timeless. Many of the numbers on his new CD, Dancing by the River, sound as if they lived in the ether for centuries, only to be channeled finally through his own imagination. “One of the biggest compliments I can get when I play is, ‘Did you write that song?’” he says. O’Brien has played in a variety of settings since the ’90s when he studied American finger style guitar at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, including with duos and a popular string band, Salt Creek. Lately, he’s been making a living as a soloist. Styling himself in the image of folk entertainer John Hartford, he travels with banjo, fiddle, guitar and a plywood floor on which he does a shoe dance to the rhythm. I’m drawn to different rivers of music, but I wouldn’t be comfortable just playing bluegrass banjo or old-timey fiddle or finger style guitar. I’ve never rested on one of those styles, but all of them are ingredients that feed into what I’m writing.””

“Back in the 1960s, John Fahey and Leo Kottke uncovered a new dimension for guitar with very old roots in the rich soil of American music. Milwaukee guitarist Colin O’Brien has long been immersed in many varieties of old-time music. On Inside These Guitars, he follows the finger-style trail of Fahey and Kottke into a realm of richly evocative instrumentals that elevate Americana into chamber art. Most of the melodies are original (with a nod to Fahey in “Speedboat Going ’Round the Bend”), masterfully composed for six- and 12-string guitar.”

“Colin O'Brien covers a lot of territory within Americana on his latest CD of mostly original songs. Tunes such as “Mountain Stage” could easily fill any sawdust-covered dance floor, while “New Territory” swings like a country-fried Hot Club number and the frisky “Hey You” could be a lost title from Gram Parsons' catalog. A talented guitarist and banjo player, O'Brien has assembled a superb multi-instrumental string band in the form of Larry Perkins, Matt Combs and Mark Howard, with Dennis Crouch supporting the enterprise on bass. Although many of the songs have a contemporary ring, the band's vintage instruments (some dating to the 19th century) endow the recording with an authentically woody sound.”

“After A Song Here’s a guy who plays the banjo and the fiddle and the guitar, and he wears a derby hat and does solo shows that include a healthy number of John Hartford songs. Got him pegged, right? Well, not quite. Colin O’Brien’s show impressed Hartford String Band veteran Larry Perkins enough that he wound up co-producing O’Brien’s latest, After a Song. Yes, there’s a Hartford tune or two on the album, but that’s not exactly the point. O’Brien has made an album that sounds like what might have happened had Hartford brought some of his old buddies into the studio to make a Colin O’Brien tribute — an album that more than occasionally bottles the lightning that was Hartford’s engagingly off-center songwriting, without settling for simple imitation. He’ll be accompanied by Hartford sidekicks Matt Combs (fiddle) and Mike Compton (mandolin), along with the always reliable Mike Bub on bass. It ought to be a treat. — Jon Weisberger ”