Before I post the review, just a few words here about the newest member of Old Crow Medicine Show, Chance McCoy. For several of the songs, he only sang, while dancing some. It seemed odd until the band’s Ketch Secor told the crowd that McCoy had broken his arm just before the band set out on tour. He and McCoy joked about it being the result of him trying to jump a bike over his mother’s mobile home. Later, McCoy would play several instruments, including some blazing fiddle. He told the crowd: “The pain killers can work miracles.”
But what really happened to his arm? As fate would have it, I saw him standing outside Salem Civic Center’s front doors after I sent my review to the print side copy desk. McCoy, who lived in Floyd County until joining Old Crow, was just hanging with some friends from the area, chatting. I asked him about it, telling him I hadn’t heard a word, even during our interview. He said the band tried to keep it quiet, to keep folks from flipping out. But he had broken his right arm the day before the tour began — in a bicycle crash near his new home in Nashville, Tenn.
He said he’s still not well enough to play as much acoustic guitar as he eventually will.
As we spoke, folks leaving the arena congratulated him on his performance and reached out to shake hands. McCoy fist-bumped with them instead, as his arm is still too sore for handshakes. The cliche holds — the show must go on.
And now for the review.
By Tad Dickens | 777-6474
Change can be tough on audiences. And Old Crow Medicine Show has been through some lately — splitting with guitarist/singer Willie Watson, rejoining with multi-instrumentalist/singer Critter Fuqua and adding a new player, Chance McCoy.
But on Friday night at Salem Civic Center, the longtime stringband favorite ripped through a set of favorites and new songs that kept most in the crowd of more than 2,342 up and hollering throughout.
And more importantly, the band sounded deeper and even more versatile than before, with McCoy – a former Floyd County resident – adding tight, high harmonies and strong work on a variety of instruments.
The first sign of the band’s growing intensity came five songs into the set, during a blazing fast new tune called “Bootlegger’s Son.” Old Crow frontman Ketch Secor had been fiddling it up and dancing around before McCoy picked up a fiddle and joined him as the song approached a crescendo. The pair stood back to back, each dropping to his knees before rising together – all the while, playing a blazing fast twin fiddle break.
It wasn’t McCoy’s only chance to shine. The former member of now-defunct Floyd band Old Sledge would play banjo, guitar, even a little harmonica. His harmonies meshed well with Secor and Fuqua, sounding to these ears better than what the band had with Watson. And his playing was outstanding, despite the fact he broke his right arm less than a month ago.
Songs from the new record, “Carry Me Back,” sounded of a piece with the band’s past output. There might not be a “Wagon Wheel,” “I Hear Them All” or “Caroline” in the bunch, but the uptempo “Mississippi Saturday Night” and “Carry Me Back To Virginia” are strong and energetic, and “Sewannee Mountain Catfight” adds to the band’s repertoire of gonzo backwoods shenanigans songs.
What might be more interesting is that the band, despite personnel changes, seems to have returned fully to its acoustic roots. No electric instruments, amps or drums were onstage, though Secor got some wild effects during his fiddle break on “Methamphetamine.”
During a rousing version of “Take ’Em Away,” Secor called up members of the opening act, The Lumineers, who stuck around through Old Crow’s mashup of “I Hear Them All” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
Lumineers frontman Wesley Schultz and cellist Neyla Pekarek sounded tight and tasteful with the band, and their harmonies could be heard well into Old Crow’s lengthy encore, which included The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “I Shall Be Released.”
The Lumineers are the hotter act right now, if sales are an indication. The group’s self-titled album is No. 14 on the Billboard pop albums chart this week, after 19 weeks out. “Carry Me Back,” by contrast, is No. 115 and dropping, a month after entering the chart.
And The Lumineers did a crowd-pleasing job on such songs as the time-shifting “Submarines” and the earnest “Dead Sea.” The crowd yelled in response to “Ho Hey,” which is No. 6 on the Billboard alternative/modern rock singles chart.
But with long and energetic shows like these, the reconfigured headliner has a chance to see its sales pick up strongly again, too.
Later thoughts [1:37 a.m. 8.18.12:] Secor, the frontman, seems to have toned down his between-songs presence a bit. There wasn’t as much hollering, but still plenty of banter between and even during songs — the crowd ate up completely his rundown of seemingly every town in Southwest Virginia, even down into North Carolina and over to West Virginia. As he called out towns, including Fort Chiswel[!]l, there were cheers from the people who had come to Salem for the show. The Shenandoah Valley boy knows where his people are and told the audience that he considered it a hometown show.
It’s possible that Fuqua’s presence has regrounded him. They grew up together, after all. Part of it might be that he is focusing his stage energy more on the extensive dancing he is doing while fiddling and playing harmonica, both of which he does in good style.
McCoy, the new guy, has become a new focal and musical foil for Secor. These two had a huge time doing the twin fiddle thing, summoning up harmonic wildness at high tempos. I know there are people who will miss the harmonies of the Watson days, but I was really digging the way McCoy, Fuqua and Secor sang together. That’s just going to get better, and as McCoy’s arm heals, this six-piece act will sound even thicker. He is adding deep old-time music experience and understanding to this stringband.
“Carry Me Back” is the best album these guys have done, though it doesn’t have an obvious hit. It hangs together well, and it seems to go by very quickly, even after about four spins. The Lumineers disc, which as I mentioned before, has done better on the charts — though to be fair, Old Crow’s latest has been No. 1 on the bluegrass chart ever since its release. Previous release “Tennessee Pusher,” released four years back, was also a Billboard bluegrass chart-topper.
I thought The Lumineers was a smart choice for an opening act, with its broad-based appeal. Face it, Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons have cleared a path for a band such as The Lumineers — musically talented, rough but refined, lyrically interesting and pop-influenced. And they pulled off a really nice job with their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Frontman Wesley Schultz told the audience that he appreciates Old Crow fans, who are “more open to different music” than he was used to. And it was a pretty diverse if nearly entirely white audience — hippies, goths, rednecks, older folks, younger folks, people who like hanging out at the hot show. Old Crow has always drawn that way. But quite a few people I talked with before the show said they were more curious to hear the Lumineers.
Secor seems to be a fan, too, and good for The Lumineers. After all, he and Old Crow bassist Morgan Jahnig were great with Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch at Jefferson Center in 2010 [check out this video, seriously]. He sat in with The Lumineers on “Ain’t Nobody’s Problem,” walking onstage sawing a fiddle, pulling a harmonica out of his pocket for a 16-bar break and smashing it with both instruments. If he didn’t care for center stage, he could be a great sideman/soloist for a ton of acts. But he’s a showman — he walked offstage doing some sort of minstrel dance, doffing his hat.
There was no way to do a survey of people as they left, though during the show I heard one couple with what looked to be a 2-year-old daughter — the little one is a big Old Crow fan — complain that there was something missing from the vocal combination. For sure, some people were turned off when Willie Watson left the group. There were message board complaints, but that’s so unscientific.
Attendance was down from the 2,817 the show drew in November 2009. But the band’s core wasn’t destroyed, and I’d be interested to know how Lumineers fans felt about the headliner.
I think it’s still a band worth hearing.