What a difference a decade-plus makes.
When Old Crow Medicine Show last played Lexington, the band’s breakthrough was still fresh, as was its mix of bawdy string band traditionalism (one that veered more to speakeasy blues than bluegrass) and punkish performance spirit
Last night, at the onset of a two night engagement at the Singletary Center for the Arts, an older Old Crow opened with a vice-ridden escapade, Tell It To Me, cut from the same album (2004’s O.C.M.S.) the band was promoting when it played downtown at The Dame a full 12 years ago. This time, though, the song opened up. It was more tempered, more orchestrated (fleshed out by keyboards, drums and pedal steel guitar – all non-traditional colors but nonetheless welcome reflections of the band’s growth). While a touch of the wildness from the Dame date was absent, the tune’s spirit was never compromised. What followed was a 1 ¾ hour set that greatly expanded on its renegade roots sound without loosing site of it.
Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua – playing fiddle and banjo, respectively, although both juggled numerous instruments all evening – remained the focal and vocal focus of the group. Secor was the sharp witted frontman, Fuqua the more sparse spoken foil. But the ensemble sound was quickly revealed during Alabama High Test, with members rushing to various platforms on the stage to surround and egg on a particular player. Sometimes what resulted were atomic bluegrass bits like 8 Dogs 8 Banjos and a warp speed barn dance medley of Ol’ Molly Hare, Raise a Ruckus and a spry yarn from the band’s 2015 album Remedy with a title that, sadly, isn’t fit for family print.
There were also more country and Americana flavored detours peppered throughout the set that might have seemed timid to those used to Old Crow’s dance hall beginnings. But songs like Caroline, Sweet Amarillo and especially the Doc Watson tribute Doc’s Days came off as products of a band searching to expand. The resulting sounds often approached the daring early ‘70s music of Poco and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But when drummer Cory Younts took a break for some feverish clogging, followed briskly by dizzying runs on mandolin, or when Secor let loose on fiddle, the spirit of its self-proclaimed “hillbilly music” heritage returned to its former, stampeding glory.
The biggest surprises came when Secor, Fuqua, Younts and guitarist Chance McCoy gathered around a single microphone for Stealin’ and the sublime unity anthem I Hear Them All. Also of note was a profoundly faithful reading of Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic with show opener Parker Millsap leading the vocal parade.
Millsap’s 45 minute set was great fun – a mix of rustic acoustic blues and country blues performed with a trio. But it was his singing – a potent wail that often recalled a young Robert Plant – that gave tunes like Hands Up, The Very Last Day (the title tune to his just released third album) and Pining, along with covers of Hesitation Blues and You Gotta Move – a sound that was suitably rootsy in design and potently jagged and boisterous in delivery.
Old Crow Medicine Show and Parker Millsap perform again tonight at the Singletary Center for the Arts. The performance is sold out.