Album review: Nothing better than Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott on ‘We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This’
In 2000 Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott released “Real Time,” a gorgeous album of duets by two complete masters of instrumentation, arrangement and performance. Beautiful.
Then the duo toured it and pretty much immediately demonstrated that there was a dimension to their playing that the recording lacked; it was a studio piece, and didn’t entirely capture the energy, spontaneity, camaraderie and humor that both O’Brien and Scott share. In a live setting, the pairing of these two performers — who can be absolutely commanding of an audience on their own — was pure unadorned fireworks.
Since that tour, I’ve often had discussions that began “Weren’t Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott fantastic at that show…” and then devolved into the kind of conversation you’d hear between grade-schoolers when discussing Pokemon cards — your basic immature enthusiasm.
This album, “We’re Usually a Lot Better than this” comes from just after the period in which they toured “Real Time.” The tracks are taken from two shows they did in 2005 and 2006, and if anything they are even more infectious than the music they created together when touring “Real Time. What really shines here is the sheer, unbridled confidence that they have in what they are doing. Neither one wants for confidence on his own, to be sure, but together it’s as if they are each pushing each other further. They take what, for others, might be real chances, but they just pony up and let fly. Their voices dance around each other, and their instruments do too.
The performances here sound spontaneous — something of a pure lark — and that’s because, to a lesser or greater extent, they really are. In the liner notes Scott writes, “Some songs we’d played [together] hundreds of times over the years, some we just did on the stage on this recording for the first time.” Gutsy, to be sure, but it’s a reminder of just how good they are at what they do.
One of the things they do so well is bring new energy to old songs and old ideas. There are some standards here, including “House of Gold,” though on this album they do it a cappella and with a kind of force and authority that raises the song from dirge to field holler. O’Brien’s delivery of “Mick Ryan’s Lament” is a stand out, as is a song that he wrote early in his solo career and which was later a hit of sorts for Garth Brooks: “When There’s No One Around” (a song that many people have covered, including Darrell Scott on his 1999 release, “Family Tree”).
The album is also a reminder that, for some people, it’s more about the performance of the songs than it is the recording of them. Yes, O’Brien has some great recordings, including “Away out on the Mountain,” and the more recent “Chameleon.” But he’s a performer, and to go to see him live is more than worth the effort. Darrell Scott is cut from entirely the same cloth. I hope that this album prompts them to head out on the road together again. Fingers crossed.