article by Australia correspondent Julie Fox
Chris O’Connor comes from a little town in the Deep South; that is the deep south of New South Wales, Australia. This might be a world away from the Deep South in America, the traditional home to all those famous blues players, but not a world away from the music itself.
Chris has had an enduring fascination with the blues of the 1920s and 30s masters. “Currently I play a range of blues from the Mississippi, Texas and Memphis traditions, as well as Piedmont material from the likes of Willie McTell and Blind Blake. If I had to choose favourite artists Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson and Blind Blake would be right up there. I also play a few original songs and instrumentals in my sets.”
During the 1970s Chris was influenced by the music of bands such as Cream, Elmore James and Taj Mahal. “On ‘Ooh so Goodn Blues’, Taj Mahal fingerpicks a National metal-bodied guitar. I got my first guitar, a Yamaha dreadnought, and began fingerpicking, trying to play some John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotton tunes. Ry Cooder’s records from the 1970s led me to investigate the music of Blind Blake, John Estes, Blind Willie Johnson and others. Once I discovered them I just kept exploring.”
My first introduction to Chris’ music was via a captivating band, ‘The Nevva Binta Memphis Mudsteppers’. This group was in constant demand on the Australian festival circuit, drawing huge crowds to their foot stomping style.
Chris picks up the story: “This band was a lot of fun. Damian Coen sang and played harmonica, Adam Barnard played washboard and other percussion and Terry Hennessy played jug. As well as pub gigs and festivals we played a lot of outdoor daytime gigs and the family audiences responded really well to the goodtime music we played, particularly the novelty of hearing a jug and washboard rhythm section. The Mudsteppers played repertoire from the Memphis Jug Band, Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, the Birmingham Jug Band, along with some originals.”
Chris also played as a duo in ‘Red Belly Blues’, with fellow Mudstepper, Damian Coen. “A high point for us was supporting John Hammond. We also did a support for the late Warren Zevon, and more recently I have done a solo support for Hans Theessink at the Milton Theatre, a great little venue on the South coast of NSW.
Some contemporary artists who I really enjoy are Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jerron Paxton, Paul Geremia, Paul Rishell and Annie Raines. On the Australian front; Hat Fitz and Cara, Don Hopkins, Fiona Boyes, as well as Dom Turner teaming up with Phil Wiggins, who are all providing good listening.”
In 2014, Chris O’Connor won the solo category to represent the Sydney Blues Society at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
“It was wonderful to meet so many musicians from different countries, all with their own take on the great art form which is the blues. It was a cultural, as well as a musical, experience for me, and my family, and attending the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis on the Martin Luther King public holiday was another highlight for us.” Since returning from Memphis, Chris has continued to play at many of the festivals around the country. He currently has two CDs for sale; ‘Things are Looking Up’ and ‘Soup’s Gone Bad’. They received positive reviews, including: “The blues legacy will remain subtle and fresh in the hands of dedicated artists like O’Connor, who play honestly, without frills or gimmicks, and with highly refined skills.” Al Hensley, Rhythms.
“Excellent stuff; whether playing Delta blues or covering Piedmont cats.” Blues Revue.
A third album is due for completion in 2015. “This will include arrangements of tunes from some favourite blues artists of the 1920s and 30s. This year I am also doing plenty of playing with my daughter, Grace. We share a love of blues, although she is adept at a number of piano styles. It’s a joy to play with her. We do a couple of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell tunes together.”
Photo by David Druce