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Urban Bourbon

By Josh Potter

Old Crow Medicine Show, Chuck Mead

The Egg, July 26

It might be giving them more credit than they’re due, but before Old Crow Medicine Show were serendipitously “discovered” by Doc Watson, busking outside a North Carolina pharmacy around the turn of the millennium, no one had much heard the modern-hobo, old-time jangle-punk aesthetic that has since grown into its own genre. The band’s debut, O.C.M.S., was a fast, raw alternative to the Nashville status quo and earned the band a surprisingly diverse listenership. The bluegrass establishment immediately embraced the sound, but as each of the band’s subsequent albums climbed higher on the country charts, this reviewer’s fears likewise rose that the band might get consumed by the Bushy superficiality that tends (with very few exceptions, these days) to accompany success in the country world.

Opener Chuck Mead did little to alleviate these fears. It was incredible to hear how little “alt” is left in the BR549 cofounder and ’90s alt-country pioneer’s current country music. At his strongest, Mead dispensed nasal one-liners in the traditional thigh-slapping Opry fashion, but at the cost of seeming at times like a Toy Story pull-string singing cowboy.

When Old Crow took the stage, the traditional “Tear It Down” arrived like a mission statement. By looking back to the strumming populism of dustbowl folkies and hard-living everymen like Cash and Jennings, the band’s music has a demolitionist radicalism that has (thankfully) helped the band avoid the hair gel and highlights of their chartmates. The show was only moments old before fiddle player Ketch Secor name-dropped Pete Seeger and the progressive musical movement that he described as “alive and well.” The silence that followed guitarist Willie Watson’s assertion that it was good to be in a state of liberal ideas and values was striking, but as unabashedly forthright as they make their views, the band’s stage presence was gracious and amiable, like consummate Southern gents (by way of, er, Ithaca).

The dark “Methamphetamine” came off like a contemporary “Needle and the Damage Done,” and the dedication of “Crazy Eyes” to a homeless man they’d met that day at the Albany bus station showed the band’s willingness to confront the seamier side of American life, but Old Crow Medicine Show are at their best when they throw caution to the wind and abuse their instruments like the buskers they’ll always be.

The band’s second set was a nonstop rush of this sort of energy. Passing instruments around, and drawing mainly on O.C.M.S., the band pounded through “Hard to Love,” the Rolling Stones’ “Down Home Girl,” and “Hard to Tell,” which resolved with the squirrely Watson stumbling back from his monitor and knocking over a table. With the exception of Secor, whose dexterity on fiddle is truly impressive, the band replace traditional bluegrass virtuosity with an infectious clamor built on speed and conviction alone.

Of course, the band wouldn’t get so much mileage out of this formula if it weren’t for their discerning songcraft and selection. Their calling-card cover of Bob Dylan’s “Wagon Wheel” helped bring the show full circle, before encoring with a surprise “Lay Lady Lay,” the gorgeous traditional “C.C. Rider,” and Vietnam narrative “Big Time in the Jungle.”

At this point in their increasingly successful career, Old Crow Medicine Show occupy a strange middle territory between scenes and listenerships, but, more than ever, they seem to know where they come from and where they’re going. A final encore of Woody Guthrie’s ever-radical “Union Maid” proved that looking back can still be one of the most progressive things an artist can do.

King of Strings

David Lindley

The Van Dyck, July 23

Here’s an idea: David Lindley should set up at a venue and play every night there for a week. Each evening he could feature one of his many instruments—saz, Hawaiian guitar, oud, bouzouki, and many more. Not only is he a master of these instruments, but he’s adapted them to his own musical sensibilities, which includes the songs he chooses to cover as well as the ones he writes. He’s also a charming raconteur, mixing facts, observations, and anecdotes with a free-ranging comic sensibility that finds him slipping into other voices at the drop of a hat. (Be sure and pick up his CD with Wally Ingram, Twango Bango II, to hear a bonus version of the song “National Holiday” sung in the voice of Jimmy Stewart.) Lindley’s musical knowledge and skills are so vast and varied that smart and curious citizenry countrywide could and should sign on for a week’s worth of shows.

Everything mentioned in the paragraph above (with the exception of a Jimmy Stewart impersonation) was in evidence last Thursday at the newly reopened Van Dyck. The night’s second show, which I attended, opened with a cover of Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.” Lindley was playing the Turkish saz, and the song eventually emerged from a modal improvisation. Switching instruments with each successive song gave him opportunity to talk about the history, modifications and makers, of both the songs and the instruments. The set’s eight songs were all given room to breathe. The full resonance of each of the stringed instruments filled the room like rich oxygen. (The sound of the baritone Hawaiian guitar was so thick you could practically stand on the soundwaves.)

Of particular note was an arrangement of three pieces by the British folk ensemble Brass Monkey (a band whose lineup has included Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick). This had a clockwork precision that stood in contrast to the sympathetic and drone notes Lindley generally favors in his choice of songs to fit his Mediterranean and Eastern instruments and their traditional idioms.

Lending further credence to the notion stated at the outset, I missed Lindley’s version of a Harry Partch composition in the first set. I learned this from the Capital Region’s own master of the strings, Kevin Maul. I missed the first set; he, the second. Somebody, please, book David Lindley into an intimate venue for a week. For now, thank you Van Dyck for bringing him back to town.

—David Greenberger

Photo: Julia Zave

Moving Units

Like two fleets of 18-wheelers passing in the night, a pair of rock’s most popular bands made appearances in the Capital Region this week. Cali arena-punks Green Day brought the majesty of their latest magnum opus, 21st Century Breakdown, to the stage at the Times Union Center on Saturday. They’re expected to return to the states in the spring, following a world tour. Two days later, Brit arena-rockers Coldplay brought the majesty—and recent Grammy success—of their latest magnum opus, Viva La Vida, to Saratoga Performing Arts Center. It was a long-awaited first area appearance for the band: The show was originally scheduled for late May, but postponed when lead singer Chris Martin lost his voice.

Photo: Joe Putrock








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