March 15, 2011

Good Golly Miss Mollie

by Jim Newsom

Ask any musician between the ages of 55 and 63 what made them want to play music in the first place, and the answer is almost always the same: “Seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.”

Mollie O’Brien is no exception. Her husband and musical partner Rich Moore, who will join her for a benefit concert at St. Patrick Catholic School in Norfolk on March 19th, says “that was it for me.” Mollie has similar feelings.

“It was amazing,” she said when I called their home in Denver, Colorado. “I even got to see The Beatles in Pittsburgh! It was a school night, and it was an hour and a half drive. Our mother always hated driving in Pittsburgh because it was a big city. But she took us up there. The tickets were $7.00. Everybody was screaming, screaming, screaming and we were up in the nosebleed section. We could hardly see them but you knew it was The Beatles when they walked out by the way they were dressed—they had the Beatle suits on!”

She was growing up in Wheeling, West Virginia, the next to the youngest of five children. When big brother Jim (now a Norfolkian) went to college, her mom had a special request of the then-eleven year old:

“The piano was in the basement of the house next to this huge gravity furnace. Jim went off to the Naval Academy and my mother asked me to learn ‘Anchors Aweigh’ so I could sing it when he came home.”

Music was an important ingredient around the O’Brien household. Mollie’s younger brother Tim would grow up to become a Grammy-winning folk and bluegrass musician known around the world. She herself has a solid discography of recordings, solo and in collaboration with her brother or husband. She was a regular on Prairie Home Companion, and is a highly regarded vocalist in a wide range of styles. But she started out watching the Lennon Sisters and listening to the Top 40.

“I was singing to the radio,” she remembered. “It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started putting some concentrated effort into it, taking lessons and singing in folk masses at church. Tim and I had a little folk duo that we played around town. I sang with a group of women at the high school singing folk arrangements of Burt Bacharach songs. I studied voice all through high school and some in college. I’m glad I took lessons—learning how to sing is a good thing because you can ruin your voice if you don’t do it right.”

After two years of college in West Virginia, she headed off to try her luck in New York City.

“Musical theatre,” she explained. “I thought, ‘I’ve done some musical theatre in my town; I like doing it. Of course the reality is I wasn’t good at all. I didn’t get anywhere with auditions and I realized early on so I didn’t let myself get too wrapped up in trying to beat a dead horse. I think a lot of people go to New York thinking they are going to make it, but in reality you don’t need to be there to do the work you want to do.”

After four years in the Big Apple and a stint doing “the corporate thing” back home in Wheeling, she joined her brother Tim in Colorado, where he was having success with the bluegrass band Hot Rize. She established herself there singing jazz and R&B, and met Rich Moore when he was picking his guitar at a party. They connected musically and romantically, got married and had two daughters.

“Tim and I kinda got back together in the mid-‘80s and made a couple of records and toured. When we made our first record, Rich put his ego and his career aside [to stay at home with the children while working as an energy consultant.] Then Tim moved to Nashville to pursue his own solo career and we cut back on the ‘Tim and Mollie’ thing. I did a bunch of stuff after that, had a couple of different bands and freelanced a lot.

“When our younger daughter went off to college, Rich and I decided to try to do more duo stuff. It just made sense: We wanted to work together; it was easy—you don’t have to make a bunch of phone calls to see if the band can do the gig; one hotel room, small rental car. It’s a whole kind of second career for us because we’re really enjoying it; we’re not burned out on working together or sick of being on the road together.”

And they sound great. Their most recent album, Saints & Sinners, is a magnificent mix of folk, jazz, blues and that catch-all genre known as Americana. The material is well chosen, the arrangements impeccable. Mollie’s gorgeously expressive voice pulls it all together, sounding like a jazz chanteuse one minute, a blues-beltin’ mama the next, a crystalline folkie later on.

And there’s a Beatles song that harkens back to that evening in the Pittsburgh nosebleed section in 1964: George Harrison’s “Don’t Bother Me,” recast in an acoustic setting that brings out the lonely longing of lost love only hinted at on the Meet the Beatles original.

“A brilliant teenage love-gone-wrong song,” she said. “We just slowed it down and changed it up a bit.”

Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore
Saturday, March 19 – 7:30 pm
St. Patrick Catholic School Fine Arts Theatre
Tickets: $10.00-15.00
(757) 440-5500; www.stpcs.org