Old Crow Medicine Show
June 27, 2013
Better than: Anything CMA-endorsed.
Modern country music sucks. That's the sad truth. On a good day, you might get almost-catchy pop songs with the slightest twang. More often, contemporary country is prefab pablum, spit-shined to a soulless nub for folks who after a long day's work don't want to think too hard, feel too much, or really listen to the sounds that fill up the emptiness in their lives. Old Crow Medicine Show is the antidote to all that's wrong with this approach to music. This says wake the fuck up, come together, get off your ass, and dance.
Choosing Austin six-string slinger Dale Watson as the opener on the band's biggest headlining tour in 15 years was a genius move. Watson is a veteran performer and an industry outsider who looks good with his epic pompadour and sounds even better. He champions the old-school, no-nonsense country of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. His set of confident originals and respectful covers established an appropriate tone for the evening. This would be the real deal: music that knows its roots. For Watson, we're talking Johnny Cash as God. For Old Crow, it was e pluribus unum (out of many, one) -- the red-white-and-blue rallying call of Thomas Jefferson, where knowledge of history plus lifting every voice and singing equals power.
Performing as a seven-piece, the band brought a new bigger sound (and three new bandmates) to the Warfield stage. The solidarity and positive energy of this expanded lineup was palpable from the first tune, a rousing rendition of "Carry Me Back to Virginia," the single from latest album Carry Me Back. Curiously, this two-step anthem, nearly Irish-sounding in its fiddle-forward patriotic fervor, blew away the recorded version. There were drums, strings aplenty (dueling banjos, guitars, upright bass, band leader Ketch Secor's blazing violin), and pretty much everyone sang. The upshot was a right slice of old-time Southern pride that felt inclusive of the whole nation if not the entire planet. That's Old Crow Medicine Show at its finest: one love, y'all.
Secor brought that same vibe of togetherness to San Francisco, which he called "a bastion of tolerance and truth... beaming loud and proud from Telegraph Hill to the world beyond." He gave shout-outs all night to the greater Bay Area, naming hoods as far-flung as the Tenderloin, El Cerrito, Mill Valley, and Santa Cruz. He knew his audience and encouraged the kind of neighborliness you tend to find more in small towns than the city. Folks we talked to had come to this show from all over California, from Los Angeles to Humboldt. That Old Crow fans will haul hundreds miles says much about this band's live presence. There's a rare honesty at these concerts, a personable rawness that transcends the polish of the band's more recent recordings and makes you need to see the band in person.
Old Crow last played the Bay Area at the Warren Hellman Public Celebration a year and a half back. It appropriately brought the late Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival founder into the room last night, cheerfully saying how "he didn't sound that good [as a banjo player], but his spirit was worth millions." The band members dedicated the vocal-rich spiritual "Down to the River of Jordan" to Hellman. The crowd erupted with great love and respect.
The band was tight all night long, chugging through much of its songbook, including newer rockers like "Humdinger" and "Mississippi Saturday Night" as well as older bluegrass barnstormers "Raise a Ruckus" and "Tear It Down." Of course, the tune that put the band on the map, "Wagon Wheel," was so sweet to hear with the entire crowd singing along every verse and chorus. The slow churn of the rural blues classic "CC Rider" just killed, as did the Woody Guthrie homage, "Do Re Mi."
Old Crow Medicine Show gave us legit roots music that spanned generations and genres. If the other stars of the Grand Ole Opry would take note, country music might just be worth listening to.