Old Crow Medicine Show Concert, Toronto, 13 July 2010

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Yes, I like Bluegrass. Is there a problem?

The Long Version: Concerts in particular, and music in general, are things that I really shouldn't review. I hardly ever go to concerts, don't really know anything about them, and yet somehow I've been to three of them in the past nine months. Each one has been a lot of fun and very loud, but it's hard to compare them since the genres have been so different. Still, one of the great things about the internet is the universal ability for people to speak beyond their authority - and it's far too late for me to stop doing that now.

Old Crow Medicine Show is a band that's a little tricky to pin down. They're a string band with at least a couple of banjos, acoustic guitars, and an occasional harmonica as well. A couple of cowboy hats were in evidence, but nobody was trying too hard: they certainly look a lot like a Bluegrass band. And of course they sound like a bluegrass band as well; I have to admit that listening to Willie Watson speaking reminded me of Boomhauer on King Of The Hill. I don't know if he was just mumbling through muddy speakers or if it was a legitimate accent, but dang ol', man, I could barely make out a word he said.

But just the same, this is far from a traditional jug band. They're decidedly modern, with roots as solidly in rock and roll as in bluegrass. So while there were some loud "yee-haw!" noises coming from the audience, it was hardly a New Country revival with wall-to-wall white suburbanites wearing snakeskin boots and checkered shirts over their Garth Brooks Souvenir Belt Buckles. It was more wall-to-wall pale folks in ball caps and the occasional sex pistol t-shirts, who might also listen to Nirvana or reggae in their spare time. What can I say? I fit in okay.

The doors to the very large, very dark main room at the Phoenix Concert Theatre opened at 7pm, and the band came on at twenty after eight. There was no opening act, just a solid hour of music followed by a bar break. Old Crow came back on again and played hard for about another hour and a half; the show wrapped up after a single encore slightly before eleven - just about right for a Tuesday night. Here's the setlist for the show at the Pheonix; songs that I didn't recognize and haven't been able to track down are simply left with a placeholder question mark, those marked '*' have been added with thanks to the thread at Old Crow Fans.

• Hard to Love
• Down Home Girl
• I Hear Them All
• Wheeling Breakdown (Instrumental)
• My Good Gal
• Humdinger
• Caroline
* We're All in This Together
• Next Go Round
• My Bones Gonna Rise Again
• Gospel Plow
• Big Time in the Jungle
• Minglewood Blues
Break - 30 minutes
* Shortnin' Bread
• Alabama High Test
• Let It Alone
• Highway Halo
* Trials & Troubles
* Raise a Ruckus
• New Virginia Creeper
* Reubins Train
• Mary's Kitchen
• Four Strong Winds (a Canadiana song written by Ian Tyson)
• Crazy Eyes
• Hard to Tell
• CC Rider
• Wagon Wheel
• Tell It To Me + band intro
* Cowgirl in the Sand
• Fall On My Knees
• Tear It Down

There's lots of places online to hear anything from snippets to full songs, so I won't worry too much about describing the music. I like it, others won't, and that's life. What really impressed me at the concert was the sheer power and enthusiasm of the musicianship. It was stunning to watch them play - whether it was on a banjo, mandolin, or acoustic guitar, their fingers were often blurred to the point of invisibility. Ketch Secor shredded the bow for his fiddle during the first half, came back from the break with a new one, and had it shredded by the end of the show as well. Poor Willie Watson had to replace and tune a guitar string during the band intro. While Secor and/or Watson sing most of the main vocals, everyone but Morgan Jahnig – who had his hads full with the Upright Bass – lead at least one song. This is a very talented and hard-working band.

There were a couple of people in the audience - literally, two of them - hooting all night for 'Crazy Eyes', which surprised me because I've never particularly cared for it. On the other hand, I would have loved to hear 'Take Em Away' and 'Methamphetamine', which somehow didn't make it into the set. But hearing 'Hard To Tell' and 'Tear It Down' live was awesome, with huge energy from the audience, and 'Wagon Wheel' was probably the biggest hit of the night as a giant sing-along. The two blatant ode de pénis songs weren't quite as popular with the two women to my left, but upbeat numbers like 'Humdinger' kept us busy fending off drunken dancers for most of the night. Good times.

Having seen the band roaring through their two-plus-hour set, and knowing who's doing what, has made me like their recorded music even more. When hearing voices in harmony, I can now picture them singing together instead of suspecting that they're layering tracks in post-production. And while many of the songs were played faster at the show, I can absolutely imagine them rocking just as hard in the recording studio.

Next time they're here, I'll be there.


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