OCMS teeters on archetype, yet delivers solid performance

by Ryan Snyder

OCMS teeter on archetype, yet deliver solid performance’ 

Something has changed with Old Crow Medicine Show between my first taste of their live experience in June 2005 and now, and it’s not necessarily related to co-founder Critter Fuqua’s performing hiatus. The Nashville-based string band still has the same rousing, old-timey sound, but I can’t say that they excite me to the same degree that they once did. Granted, it is close to impossible to recapture the same magic that arose out of the dusty tents on a summer Bonnaroo day at a place like the Millennium Center, but even a fraction of the same electricity was conspicuously absent at their Friday night date in Winston-Salem. There was nothing even remotely disdainful about the performance on the surface, however. In fact, the enormous buzz around OCMS’ live performances preceded them and they did nothing to disappoint their hardcore fans. The band played an admirable set of 26 songs, clocking in at just under two hours in length and worked in every fan favorite in their ever-expanding repertoire. Lead vocalist Ketch Secor’s stage charisma was as palpable as ever, dripping with the sort of bluegrass (though they despise that characterization) boy-band appeal that curiously led them to prominence on Country Music Television. Their instrumental harmonies were crisp and cohesive, even if the sound varied very little from simply popping an album in a stereo at home. First impressions, however, are a little hard to shake, for better or worse, and mine just happened to come at one of the preeminent music festivals in the country. At that time, much of the crowd was wholly unfamiliar with Old Crow Medicine Show. Their signature hit “Wagon Wheel” was still in its mainstream infancy and thousands packed into one of the festival’s opening shows simply to satisfy their curiosity for what was considered, at that time, sort of a novelty act. Few left that show without those preconceived notions utterly defeated as the tent quickly exploded into a hippie hoedown. There were bodies swirling and Birkenstocks stomping enormous clouds of dust in the air with complete disregard for the fact that there was an entire weekend ahead for which to conserve energy. Just as the crowd’s energy at Bonnaroo that year came to define the show for me, the same phenomenon inexplicably transpired at OCMS’s Millennium Center performance. That is to say, the complete lack thereof was the primary symptom in this case. To simply say that the crowd was lethargic would be inaccurate since that would imply a lack of emotion on their part. But witnessing several near-fights and an expulsion before the band took the stage was a more telling testament to this particular crowd’s mindset. Confederate flag T-shirts and denim overalls abounded, and one fan was even sporting his camouflage waders, as leaden-faced, hillbilly Lotharios stood like statues with one hand groping their dates and the other wrapped firmly around cans of Budweiser. This wasn’t the case with the entire crowd, fortunately, as small pockets of enthusiastic revelers peppered the outskirts of the burly, surly audience core. There were a few moments of unanimous excitement, though these didn’t occur until the group’s biggest hits were played, particularly when opener the Felice Brothers joined them for the aforementioned “Wagon Wheel.” It was a bit dismaying that great songs such as the powerful “Methamphetamine” and jug band legend Noah Lewis’ “Minglewood Blues” weren’t greeted with such zeal. As much acclaim as the band merits, they deserve an equal amount of criticism for allowing this sort of attitude to infest their shows. Looking back over the last dozen set lists, the formula remains fairly consistent: Newer material and deep cuts populate the first half, while they keep the big guns like “Wagon Wheel” on the shelf until later. Of course, this blueprint keeps the fair-weather segment around for the majority of the show and, thus, the Anheuser-Busch products flowing. Still, it endangers a great song, along with the band themselves, of being marginalized in the same way that Warren Zevon and his classic “Werewolves of London” were. Zevon wrote so much great material, yet lamented the fact that much of his audience was there to hear but one song. Like Zevon, however, Old Crow Medicine possesses the kind of permanence that transcends one great song, though it’s high time to prove it to the rest of their fans.