In the redwood forest above Santa Cruz, amongst a handful of co-op art deco Airstream trailer-homes painted yellow or paisley with rainbow peace flags displayed proudly in the windows, between hand-hung clothes drying lines that crisscross the walking paths that converge at the communal kitchen with the "free food fridge," Marty O'Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra played their first unofficial gig at the U.C. Santa Cruz Trailer Park.
"It's one of the strangest places, but wonderful," explained O'Reilly. "All the trailers are decorated with art and themes and that's where all the coolest, funkiest kids live. And they always had great parties. We had a couple beers, and it got so rowdy. It almost had this sort of punk show energy."
Punk energy is a buried surprise from O'Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra whose songs are based in classic blues, caked with Chris Lynch's sometimes countrified, sometimes classical violin fiddling; Jeff Kissell's grounding double bass; and, O'Reilly's steady guitar and voice breaking over the strings like a low rumbling thundercloud. Originally assembled for just one gig at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center's Santa Cruz buskers showcase, nearly three years, a live record and their debut Pray for Rain under their collective belt, the Old Soul Orchestra are still striving to perfect the chemistry of musical composition and emotional performance.
"I think you see two types of musicians in the world, two polarities of musicians," explained O'Reilly. "There are intellectual, mathematic players and emotional players. I'm not really a fancy intellectual, I'm more emotion driven. Certainly you can see we are making these ridiculous, funny faces and moving around a lot on stage. It comes from a deep emotional place. Soulfulness is really what we strive for as a band."
O'Reilly's passion and whimsical freedom in music was discovered mostly by accident when he was a teen downloading music off the internet and mistakenly acquired a Blind Willie Johnson track, "Let Your Light Shine On Me," an archaic blues recording crackled with Johnson's burnt vocals permeating the simplistic 12-bar.
"I don't like to get too heady or spiritual, but it sort of feels like destiny. I was a teen I had never listened to anything like that. I was listening to rap music," he laughed. "For the first time I was really connecting with that recording through the barrier of time with out being distracted by the ancient sound quality."
From there, O'Reilly revisited his dad's records, digging up early John Lee Hooker albums. Hooker came to be one of his first musical heroes and a weighty influence on his free-flowing blues- based songwriting.
"He had this trance-like quality on his early albums," said O'Reilly of Hooker (then telling me to write down and listen to 1971's Hooker N' Heat with a vehement urgency that made me actually do it). "It's this double disk with Canned Heat," he said ecstatically. "It's all these songs where there's almost no chord changes some of them are seven to 12 minutes long. These guys are just pounding away at their instruments. It's dynamically driven and something I've always really loved about blues music. When I was learning to play I was an angsty teen and I would play these really aggressive blues riffs, I'd space out for like, an hour. It was sort of meditative, so I identify with hearing other players do that."
With the addition of smoothly aggressive violin styling and punishing stand up bass, O'Reilly's once categorically dimensional compositions become an orchestral kaleidoscope—chameleon-like and budding from whispers, to chain gang hammering—always ending in the same place, but getting there by different means with each performance.
We have these basic parts but everything is subject to change in the moment," said O'Reilly. "We strive for melancholy Americana sort of foundation, reinvented. Hooting and hollering and stamping and making weird noises and faces, that's what feels best for us as players."
Marty O'Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra
9 pm. Fri., Nov. 14th
Volcanic Theatre Pub, 70 SW Century Dr. $5.