MOLLIE O'BRIEN IS originally from Wheeling, West Virginia, and it echoes in her voice, which is as clear and pure as mountain air. Various peregrinations, from New York to Denver, where she now resides, have also left their imprint. Her music reflects influences from each of these cities, resulting in a sophisticated blend of Americana and blues in a style that resonates with both power and ease. O'Brien appears Friday at the Berger Performing Arts Center for a show billed as "An Evening of Women and the Blues." She and her band will share the stage with local blues and jazz pianist/songstress Lisa Otey for an evening sure to delight fans of blues, jazz and American roots music alike.
Touring in support of her latest release, Big Red Sun (Sugar Hill Records), O'Brien allows her voice full reign on gems like Memphis Minnie's "In My Girlish Days" and Lucinda Williams' "Big Red Sun Blues," and further unleashes it for a romp on Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man." Following her Tucson performance, O'Brien will head to Los Angeles for a couple of shows, but isn't in the habit of commiting to extended tours. Maintaining a balance between her music and motherhood, she says, "I usually go out for weekends rather than long tours. I have children, so I try to be home during the week."
O'Brien's first introduction to music came with her childhood piano lessons, but the influences that would later inspire her own career didn't arrive until her teens. "I was in high school during the '60s folk boom," she says. "I heard a lot of Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, the Beatles...I saw them all on shows like Ed Sullivan and listened to the records. From there I started playing coffee houses, folk masses, basically anyplace that I could."
The formative music education O'Brien received with her early piano lessons is something she treasures. "I would be horrified if there was no music education in the schools today. I think that exposure to the arts is so important for kids."
Five years have elapsed since O'Brien last graced a Tucson stage, and her enthusiastic local fans are sure to provide a warm welcome on her return. Among her devoted following are KXCI deejay Marty Cool, who's been sharing his love of her "Big Red Sun Blues"with his listeners in recent weeks; and there's no shortage of Tucson Blues Society members who adore her folk, jazz and blues stylings. "I'm looking forward to visiting Tucson," O'Brien relates. "I remember having a great breakfast there. I really liked the hall (Berger Performing Arts Center). You have beautiful weather, too. I look forward to that!"
O'Brien is very comfortable with her mix of styles, and extends her musical diversity to her off-stage life as well. "Right now, I'm listening to Paul Simon at home," she relates. "I would pay big bucks to see Ibrahim Ferrer with the Buena Vista Social Club, and I'd love to go see Beck. I am really into Beck. I tried to take my kids to see Luscious Jackson, but we couldn't go because they are too young. But that would have been fun."
Joining O'Brien are guitarist Nina Gerber and bass player Chris Engleman. An accomplished player, Gerber often accompanies Greg Brown, both on stage and in the studio, and was the guitarist for the late Kate Wolf. Gerber's lovely guitar work holds its own alongside O'Brien's voice.
Opening the evening will be Tucson's own Lisa Otey, performing in support of her fourth CD, gimme some a yo' sugar!, released on her own Owl's Nest Productions label. Otey is currently receiving international airplay and accolades for her sultry, powerful voice, and her jazzy and occasionally raucous piano playing.
A Tucsonan for 15 years, Otey landed in town as a teenager to study with UA prof and noted jazz pianist Jeff Haskell. She is currently the musical director for both the Gaslight Theatre and Project Pastime, a program for Catalina High School's special education department, in conjunction with the Invisible Theater. For the past six years, Otey has directed the music for Project Pastime's touring group, as well as the annual Me Inside of Me music show.
After enduring an eight-week hiatus last year due to a polyp on her vocal cord, a fully recovered Otey is once again enjoying belting out the infamous jazz double-entendres her audience has come to expect. In her current crowd-pleaser, "Got My Modem Workin'," she gives a clever, technological nod to the Muddy Waters classic.
"The loss of my voice last year was quite a spiritual experience for me," Otey says. "I chose not to undergo surgery and risk losing my voice for good, so I had to go for eight weeks without saying a word. Then I had six weeks of speech therapy. I am working with vocal coach Nancy Davis Booth to strengthen the middle part of my range, but all in all I am very lucky."
Catch Mollie O'Brien and Lisa Otey at 8 p.m. Friday, January 28, at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. All seats are reserved. Tickets are $15, $13 for Tucson Blues Society and In Concert! members, and available at Hear's Music, Antigone Books and by phone at 327-4809.