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FolkMusic Review: We're Usually A Lot Better Than This
Something must be said right off the bat for the title of this disc. As humble as it is, it doesn't take too long of listening in on this disc to figure out We're Usually A Lot Better Than This is a ridiculous title. Sure, Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott may have felt like the performances captured on this disc didn't present their finest work ever. But when you have talent the enormity of these two, "falling short" still puts you far beyond where just about any other instrumentalist could ever hope to fall. Besides, the live energy is infectious and intense.

The title of this album comes from an off-the-cuff comment O'Brien makes before delivering a stirring version of his classic "Mick Ryan's Lament" (purchase/download) - a tune fashioned in the tradition of Irish balladry. It's kind of a perfect moment to shed light on the absurd declaration that music can get much better than this. Indeed, both Scott and O'Brien are gifted beyond normalcy in the art of delivering traditionally styled music with all the urgency and passion as if they weren't pulling from the past at all. There's nothing nostalgic about the way they employ tradition; instead their tackling of the form is equivalent of building a new home with an old hammer.

As if to drive this fact even further home, the very next tune on the disc - "With a Memory Like Mine" (purchase/download) - is a song Scott's father originally wrote and taught to his son, who finished it off with a banjo and a final verse. It's this allegiance to carrying on of a legacy, the picking up where the other left off which belies the backward glance of time and simply moves the artist - and his art - forward.

Both these artists are remarkably dexterous and astute on a number of different instruments. Between them, they play guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, slide guitar, dobro, bazouki, and yet even other various instruments. So, it's no surprise they're able to create such a luscious and full instrumental experience. Take for example their version of "Long Time Gone" (a song Scott wrote, which was later recorded and popularized by the Dixie Chicks). Their close and tight guitar-mandolin back-and-forth creates such a lush accompaniment, you nearly forget this is just two people with two instruments. While Scott makes his way through a staccato and high-pitched mandolin solo, O'Brien compensates by holding the foundation on guitar, and vice versa. Of course this is a song these two recorded together a couple of years before the Dixie Chicks made a hit out of it. They've been playing it together for a while.

Then again, these are two artists who have played together innumerable times through the years. They've got each other's impulses nailed down, and know so well when to back off and let the other shine that even their improvisations sound well-rehearsed. Considering the performances captured on this recording were made for a junior high fundraiser, it's likely they didn't expect to be bringing their A-Game. But what we get is music which is still head and shoulders above so much of what else is offered. This isn't poetry or theatrics set to melody. It's just two men who can play the everloving heck out of their instruments, vibing off each other's instincts, and making songs that are just plain good, ring out even better.

Folk Music Review, September 11, 2012

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