Blistering bluegrass; Classic country; Awesome Americana. Three simple superlatives that sum up the manic musical mayhem that transpires into an Old Crow Medicine Show live performance. Faint hearts and traditional deniers need not apply to join their band wagon but fans of Darius Rucker’s version of ‘Wagon Wheel’ are welcome as long as they treat the song as an initiation into the old time world of the Old Crow Medicine Show. Many of those who packed the 1500 capacity Ritz in Manchester well and truly bought in to the ideals of the band with several hard core gig goers shuffling out at the end muttering that they had just witnessed the best concert of 2014.
With such a turnout and buzzing atmosphere throughout the evening, there was a satisfying re-assurance that the future of country music in the UK was heading down the right path. Although it has to be acknowledged that the Old Crow Medicine Show has made several UK visits over the years, cultivating a fan base and possibly attracting a cross genre audience. Recently acclaimed collaborations with Mumford and Sons via their award winning road trip documentary will have served them no harm but ultimately it’s their impressive songs and spellbinding stage show that successfully seduces an audience.
There was the added spice to this 2014 UK tour that Old Crow were bringing along Parker Millsap as their opening act. Stateside luminaries have been shouting from the rooftops for a while about the talents of this latest incarnation of an Oklahoma song writing gem, bestowing him with an Emerging Artist nominee at this year’s Americana awards. Armed with a stack of songs from his excellent self-titled new album, Parker brought a touch of dustbowl blues to a damp Manchester alongside his sidekicks of Michael Rose (upright bass) and Daniel Foulks (fiddle). Growing in influence and presence with each song, Parker was approaching his peak by the end of his short opening set. Whilst the projection of his stunning anti-love song ‘The Villain’ would have been more suited to a smaller quieter venue on this occasion, ‘Old Time Religion’ and especially ‘Truck Stop Gospel’ at the end saw him hit a mightily impressive stride. Old Crow’s decision to bring Parker back to sing a version of Van Morrison’s ‘On the Mystic’ during their encore also reaped vast dividends and sealed a positive impression of an artist deep rooted in the soil of authentic Americana.
Right from the lively opening chords of ‘Bushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer’ through to nearly two hours later, a closing celebration of Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’, the slick superiority of Old Crow’s supreme stage show sailed through a sea of mainly accelerated acoustic adulation. The interactivity and occasional hyperactivity of all seven band members raised the pulse of a show which ebbed and flowed through the band’s fifteen year recording career. Not surprisingly tracks from their current album REMEDY featured prominently and it is probably a touch harsh to single out ‘8 Dogs 8 Banjos’, ‘Firewater’ and ‘O Cumberland River’ as stand out live numbers. Many would no doubt enthuse about that other Dylan finishing project ‘Sweet Amarillo’ as main vocalist Ketch Secor sarcastically hailed the country radio playing of that other Dylan originating song as the prompt for the great man to send another unfinished masterpiece to them.
The current Old Crow Medicine Show line up is a transient co-operative of roots music artisans blasting out banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica amongst countrified pedal steel and soulful keys, all being kept in time by percussion and upright bass. Alongside Secor’s main vocals and band leading presence, Critter Fuqua provided most singing assistance with Gill Landry particularly stepping forward to heat things up with a hearty serving from ‘Mary’s Kitchen’. Kevin Hayes came to the fore impressively on ‘Sweet Home’, while comical interludes and theatrical step dancing were among the many talents of Cory Younts. Individual performance aside, the spirit of the band is in its collective aura and passion to pioneer the roots of country and bluegrass music long into the future.
As the show progressed, the packed venue responded to each request, whether restoring near silence for the band to deliver a couple of numbers around a single mic with minimal instrumentation such as ‘The Warden’ or needing little encouragement to bellow out the chorus to ‘Wagon Wheel’ word perfect. The renewed life of this old song has been incredible in the past year with a deluge of different versions accompanying many live shows up and down the country. From a personal viewpoint ‘Alabama High Test’ held a special moment as 2008’s TENESSEE PUSHER release propelled the band in my direction and there was a slight disappointment that ‘Dearly Departed Friend’ from the new album didn't fill the occasional moments when everyone needed a breather.
Best gig attended of 2014? It is wrong to assume that any of the remaining shows will not surpass the highs of this Old Crow Medicine Show gig. Credit to Manchester for hosting three great shows this year when you add in Eric Church and Kacey Musgraves to this one; Shame on the venues of Birmingham for not willing to bring the cream of country talent to the Second City. However some evenings are worth the investment of time and travel. Old Crow Medicine Show and Parker Millsap rewarded that investment many times over.
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