Concert Review: Mark O’Connor @ The Egg, 03/11/2023
There are child prodigies, and then there’s Mark O’Connor, a child prodigy on steroids who held a crowd of 300 at The Egg in rapt attention Saturday night, March 11th. Now 61 years old, he’s married to Maggie, another great fiddle player who accompanied him and occasionally sang. He is widely considered the greatest fiddler who ever lived. He set out to prove it in a three-hour presentation that covered styles ranging from bluegrass to western swing, from gypsy jazz to classical, and from progressive rock to Flamenco.
As a child Mark O’Connor lived dirt poor on the wrong side of the tracks in Seattle, Washington, so far from Nashville that he couldn’t get the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. His father was a raging alcoholic who worked two jobs, construction from early morning to the afternoon. Then, he’d low crawl under houses among rats and snakes to clean out the spaces under the foundation. He expected Mark to work with him in his “business.”
His mother was dying a slow death from cancer, and at age 11, he’d have to run home from school to escape the 9th-grade bullies who would throw him to the ground and kick him so hard they once broke his leg that put him in a cast for months.
Also, at 11, he was playing fiddle like a professional. Two years later, he signed a record deal with Rounder Records, the largest indie roots music label in the world, and at 15, he gave a command performance at the White House for President Reagan with Merle Haggard. Chet Atkins called him the greatest fiddler in the world, and he’d already appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. The bullies who’d broken his leg a few years later sat in the back of a music class he taught, listening intently to his fiddle playing.
Saturday night at The Egg, his fingers flew across the fretboard so fast, they almost were a blur, and his bow swept the mesmerized crowd into nirvana. And he and Maggie did it all alone on a stark stage with only a comfy chair in the corner that Maggie sat in when her husband switched to guitar.
He introduced each number with a monologue dropping names like Stephane Grappelli, Vince Gill, Chet Atkins, Bill Monroe, and Doc Watson. David Grisman, Steve Morse of The Dregs, and Yo-Yo Ma explained that, yes, they were mentors but proved in performance that he taught them as much as they taught him.
O’Connor ended the concert playing a beat-up old white fiddle that his first teacher brought to him as a young teenager. “My teacher Benny Thomason found it,” he told me in an advance interview. “I picked it up and couldn’t put it down. It was a cannon of an instrument, and that was the white fiddle that I entered all the competitions with all through my teens and won.”
There are signatures all over the instrument.
“Benny Thomason was the first signature, and then Stephane Grappelli. Joe Venuti’s on there, Papa John Creach, Merle Haggard, and a bunch of heavyweights.
“The white-painted fiddle was so ugly. I started covering up the white paint with some signatures. For about 15 years, it hung up in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. I got it back out because I had an emotional attachment to it, and it plays that old fiddle music like crazy. It just inherits it, and I helped create a modern version of Texas fiddling with that fiddle. It also helps me to play those old tunes. As soon as I pick it up, that’s what I do.”
People sometimes ask O’Connor if gets nervous when he performs. He told his audience during the second set’s question and answer period that it was his home life that made him nervous. “When I play, I imagine a better life. Music was (and is) my escape.” An 11-year-old girl in the audience clutching his instruction book asked him what it takes to become a good musician. He told her to let the music transport her.
O’Connor’s mother sent him on his own at age 14 to play concerts around the country. She died when he was 15, and his father came around, becoming his manager. His current tour is a vehicle to promote his memoir, Crossing Bridges. He spent much time promoting it as he introduced each song, and he read from it extensively during the second set.
“It’s been an incredible ride,” he told me, “and that’s why I wanted to write this book because there are a lot of rumors about my childhood. A lot of people saw me play, and they have these different versions of what happened, and a lot of it is accurate, but a lot of it is not.
“I had a lot of depression early on, and at some point, it was really the music itself that saved me. As long as I could express myself through music, I felt rich. A lot of my book is about financially just being poor, but that was the music that was not only worthwhile to me but everybody around me.”
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