October 6, 2006

A Night of Old Tunes and Memories

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There was an unusually excited buzz swirling inside the State Theater on Saturday night. It was 8:15 and most of the seats were still empty as Ithacans raced around the hall with an energy that the laidback community doesn’t seem to exhibit on most occasions.
However, the return of Old Crow Medicine Show wasn’t most occasions; it was a triumphant homecoming for a band that cut its teeth on Ithaca’s streets. If you’d been roaming the commons some eight or nine years ago, you might have come across Old Crow Medicine Show playing its unique blend of bluegrass, jug, country, folk and blues for passers-by. Or, if you’d been at Grassroots, Ithaca’s local music festival, in the summers of 2002 and 2003, you would have seen the band led by frontman Willie Watson of Watkins Glen.
As showtime approached, more and more people piled into the State Theatre, and the buzz grew as locals shared their recollections of Old Crow’s humble beginnings. It seemed like everyone in the crowd knew one another, and were not only welcoming back a band who’d been away for some time, but were also welcoming back one another to a familiar place.
A jolly friend of mine bounced into the row in front of me and, overwhelmed with excitement, held up her shaky wineglass, declaring, “This is going to be a great show. All the cool people are here!” Before I could respond, she was back up the isle, bouncing from person to person, exchanging greetings with familiar friends. My friend’s pronouncement lingered with me, and later I realized it had summed up perfectly the pre-show vibe.
As the lights went down at 8:25, all the seats were filled.
With so much hype, it would have been very easy for OCMS to disappoint; but from their first note, Willie Watson, Ketch Secor, Critter Fuqua, Kevin Hayes and Morgan Jahnig did anything but.
The band’s style defied classification, mixing blues from the Delta, bluegrass from the hills, jug from Southern porches and country from the flatlands into a sound that broke from all regions and forms to become something distinctly American. Many critics call Old Crow’s music Americana, and while that may be a convenient title, the sound encompasses so much from so many places that a name doesn’t do it justice.
In its instrumentation — guitar, banjo, fiddle, harmonica, guitjo (guitar/banjo combination), upright bass — OCMS tapped into the river of tradition fed by the likes of Bill Monroe, the Memphis Jug Band, Jimmie Rodgers and the turn of the century traveling minstrel shows (from which the band takes its name). Its vocals, however, brought the band into the contemporary.
Watson’s high wail on songs like “Down Home Girl” and Secor’s sweet chorus on “Raise a Ruckus” were reminders of how young these guys really are. Led by such youthful voices, OCMS lacked much of the dirty sound that defines the music traditions the band has grown out of. That’s not to say that their sound is polished; rather, it is music of its time and not a carbon copy of the past.
Take the band’s rendition of “Cocaine Habit,” for example. Old Crow’s version lacked much of the pain and crudeness of Jenny Mae Clayton and the Memphis Jug Band’s original, but added a playfulness and youth that the song never had before. The band also added references to such contemporary figures as Karl Rove and Elijah Wood . With a number of other old standards as well as brand new songs off 2006’s Big Iron World, the band took the Ithaca audience on a journey through the American songbook that stretched all the way to the present.
After the long set break in which the band members shared drinks with old friends, Old Crow opened its second half with a roar. The crowd danced and sang along, and the concert took on a barnstorm feel.
During inter-song tuning, which happened often, Secor regaled the crowd with memories of Ithaca: sleeping on couches, getting evicted, living in the Wegman’s parking lot and learning from local music-scene staple Richie Stearns, who joined the band on banjo for their final songs as well as part of the encore.
Stearns fit right in with the down home, community feel of the show, but the same can’t be said for the petite Indian man he brought on stage to wail through a very emotional song about the Iraq War. As out of place as the man was, the Ithaca crowd greeted him with cheers at every chorus. Old Crow seemed surprised by Stearns’ sidekick, but played on, and in doing so, pushed the boundaries of their distinctly American music to a place I’m not sure they wanted to venture to.
Nonetheless, while the odd mixture’s sound was not particularly pleasing, the Ithaca community welcomed it like they welcomed Old Crow Medicine Show itself: with open arms. When the band finished its encore and the lights came on, the audience cheered still. In no rush to leave, Ithacans meandered back to their coats scattered about the theater and filed out, happy to have had some old friends back in town for the night.