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O2R by Cathi Norton

O2R is a band with a sense of humor and fun. Even their name, which has been “O2R” for so long I can’t remember what it stands for—Open to Regret, Ridicule, Righteousness, Riches?—whatever…I’m sure the part that counts is the “Open to…”. For the band—Zain Mackey-vocals, Lee Van Buskirk-lead guitar and vocals, Ken Grooms-bass guitar, Jim Sprague-rhythm guitar and vocals, and Michele Brentano—piano, along with a dazzling array of drummers—is all about having a wonderful time with music. Originally begun as a blues band, they’ve added soul, the Beatles, rock, and country tunes over time because they got adventuresome, more well-rounded, better at arrangement and instrumentation, and doggonit, just because they wanted to!

The gracefully unassuming Lee Van Buskirk generally leads the group into the groove with heart-felt and tasteful guitar playing that sports a natural sense of phrasing. Getting to the heart of the song’s feel can be a tough assignment all too rarely seen in a musician, yet Lee generally finds the pocket with ease, is more than happy to let others shine, while effortlessly doing so himself when it’s his turn to fly. He’s none too shabby on vocals either! “Tall Man” Ken Grooms keeps the bottom end solid on bass behind the group, steadily pushing a beat so integral to blues, is satisfied with a spare attack (almost unheard of in most lead-player-wannabe bass players—sigh), and occasionally breaks out into a big-ass grin when Zain sasses the audience. Jim Sprague fills out the guitar sound with rhythm chops and takes exciting chances when taking his a solo. The hips get to shakin’, and fingers go where no fingers have gone before-- yet his solos translate an excitement completely different than VanBuskirk’s smooth story-telling approach. Both complement and support each other well. Michele Brentano, O2R’s newest full-time member of the band, sits at the side bolstering the sound with supportive chord-comping and letting those fingers do the walking on the wild side when given a solo. Her playing ability grows with every gig and any moment now I expect her to bust out with a Jerry Lee Lewis key-burner that ends up with the whole piano bursting into flames. While no particular drummer can claim the full-time spot these days (drummers…what can I say?), the group almost always has players who know what to do and where to do it. Most recently the drummer claiming the most gigs is Craig Brown.

Standing in front of this collection of nefarious characters is Zain Mackey, lead singer. No one would dare call the gal “small,” though if she’s not movin’ or talkin’ her size might fit that description. But most of us just think of her as a Mack truck in a Volkswagen body. The girl has sauce, a laughing spirit, and the hutzpah to tackle whatever song they toss at her with all the flare she’s got. She’s largely responsible for not only giving the band a “front” character (not always easy in many current bands who tend to take themselves a Weee bit too seriously), but she engages the audience, entertaining as well as delivering on vocals and driving them home. “Little Big Woman” we call her when she’s not around to box our ears. The thing I like most about the band is their willingness to take chances. Not for them the dour and vacant- looked concentration so often seen on the hopelessly hip or the en-route-to-L.A. musical wannabes. Oh no, on any given night, you’re more likely to see them taking on all comers—inviting up guests, trying something they haven’t done before—who else loves it when you make them vamp 20 minutes while you grandstand and “work” the room?—or changing the list mid-set because they aren’t “feelin’ the love?” They like their music served up with great fun, and that’s the reason people always keep comin’ back for more.