I first saw Old Crow Medicine Show about a decade ago at the Music Farm. A friend who had discovered the Nashville-based band a couple of years earlier had raved about the incredible live performance it put on. After seeing that first show, I had to admit that the band’s stage presence was pretty remarkable.
OCMS plays the sort of old-timey music that a lot of folks fell in love with after the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? was released. The soundtrack to that 2000 Coen Brothers film took a fledgling musical movement, Americana, and gave it a much needed shot in the arm. OCMS was one of the acts that benefitted from this resurgence. Discovered while busking on a street corner by Doc Watson’s daughter, who then brought her famous father around for a listen, OCMS has come a long way. They’ve won Grammys, toured the world, and band member Ketch Secor even cowrote a song, “Wagon Wheel,” with Bob Dylan that ended up being OCMS’s biggest hit to date. Although I’d been able to catch the band live a couple more times after that Music Farm show 10 years or so ago made me a fan, I hadn’t had a chance to see OCMS since “Wagon Wheel” had become a musical phenomenon. This past Tuesday night at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center finally gave me a chance to catch up.
After a lively opening set by Santa Cruz band The Devil Makes Three, the curtain of the PAC was lowered, something one rarely sees done for concerts. As the intermission ended and the lights went down, OCMS kicked into its first number even before the curtain raised. Once the velvet shroud was hoisted, the band was revealed, playing furiously under chandeliers made of mason jars. Risers at the back of the stage elevated the piano, drum kit, and pedal steel setups, and as the night progressed, the band members took turns playing various instruments. Even as amazing as those live performances I’d seen in the past were, I was completely unprepared for how tight the band was. As OCMS plowed through numbers like “Caroline” and “We Don’t Grow Tobacco,” the various band members showed off choreographed moves with their respective instruments. Mandolin player Cory Younts even showed off some quality clogging steps at one point, earning plenty of hoots and hollers from the crowd. Secor is either a big fan of Charleston history and culture, or else he really does his homework before shows. Throughout the evening, Secor threw out plenty of Lowcountry references, from shrimp and grits to Highway 17 South. The crowd ate it up, of course. Secor at one point talked about how the band had played Myrtle Beach the previous evening, noting that he preferred everything about Charleston over the resort town to our north, including the smell. He also noted that he’d seen far less New Jersey license plates here in town than in Myrtle Beach, which segued into an excellent rendition of “Mississippi Saturday Night.” Banjo player Kevin Hayes stepped out front for a great song, “Humdinger,” and the band performed a brand new tune, “Whirlwind,” live for the first time ever. After hearing various members of the crowd yelling requests for it, OCMS finally relented and played the traditional folk song “Raise a Ruckus,” as well as another cover, Ma Rainey’s “See See Rider.” Finally, toward the end of the show, the band broke out its biggest hit. “Let’s sing one for momma,” said Secor, referring to the “hey, momma rock me” chorus of “Wagon Wheel.” The crowd went crazy and sang along with every word. After bidding their fans goodnight, OCMS left the stage, then returned minutes later for an encore that included a scorching version of Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”
While they’ve never exactly been slouches onstage, it seems that OCMS has really upped their game in recent years. Even with the PAC only about three-quarters full, the band played like it was a sold-out show. I imagine each band member must lose at least a couple of pounds of water weight per night sweating it out on the stage. Perhaps a future release could be a OCMS workout DVD. Whatever the case, when it comes to great Americana music played live, it doesn’t get any better than Old Crow Medicine Show.