In the years that have passed, the band hasn't released new material until this week. They haven't had any of the bursts that lead to sudden stardom, save for last year's Railroad Revival Tour with Mumford and Sons and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Perhaps that, along with timing, were enough to sell out the Pageant this time around.
Or maybe it's the degeneration of the economy that's made Old Crow Medicine Show's songs more relevant and necessary. That perhaps also gives context to the theft of the band's van -- with all of the band's merchandise -- from the Pageant's parking lot after the show. (2009 white Honda Odyssey van with Alabama license plate 61M4T. Contact Monica at 256-656-5953 if you have any info.)
Regardless of any economic or political reasons, Old Crow Medicine Show packed the house early with a crowd crazed for opener Chuck Mead and his Grassy Knoll Boys. The BR549 founder has played his blend of classic country and Texas swing in St. Louis several times this year, but never to a crowd this big and enthusiastic. They brought more cheers and applause during their twisty Andy Griffith memorial, "Me n' Opie (Down By the Old Duck Pond)" than OCMS got during its last St. Louis show.
Given the standing ovation earned by the opener, it's difficult to understand why Mead's Old Rock House show last May was so sparsely attended.
Old Crow Medicine Show opened with "Carry Me Back," a stomping bluegrass string narrative of a Virginia Civil War soldier. They continued with "Alabama High Test" and perfect mutli-part vocal harmonies that balanced polished showmanship with sweaty, hard instrumental ferocity.
Because of the surprise sell-out, the Pageant opened the entire balcony for general admission seating. During Vietnam veteran ode "Big Time in the Jungle," a kerfuffle ensued in the normally-reserved seats. A woman sitting near the back wasn't pleased with the dancing of a man in the front of the reserved row. In response to her complaints, the dancer started to sit, then busted out some of the finest side-kicking moves ever seen so close to a balcony's edge. The argument continued after the show, with the woman standing on the stair landing, yelling at the dancing man at the top of the stairs.
There wasn't any bickering onstage as band leader Ketch Secor sang the praises of St. Louis, dedicating "Caroline" to his sister in the audience before hollering, "If you've got some dancin' shoes, strap 'em on, honey!" for "Bootlegger's Boy," another new song that tells the tale of criminal problems that could have happened 70 years ago or last week.
"Levi" also could have happened in the past or present, but Secor made certain the audience knew it was the latter. It's the story of an OCMS fan from Virginia who died in Iraq. The band dedicated the song to all service people. It's a heartbreaker in the same vein as "Big Time in the Jungle," giving as much credence to new soldiers as old. Mournful fiddle anchored by Morgan Jahnig's pulsing upright bass augmented the story without political stance -- just waste and loss.
While its ability to throw a righteous country party seems to be Old Crow Medicine Show's strong point, the band is even better at telling stories about the current state without being preachy. "We Don't Grow Tobacco" illustrates a changing world from the perspective of a tobacco farmer who's fallen victim to those changes. They don't take a pro or anti-tobacco stance; they just give a voice to one part of the story that's omitted from the public discourse.
The party continued quickly with the double-banjo assault of "Mississippi Saturday Night." At first listen it sounds like another jig. Listen closer, and it's violence, poverty, Walmart and FEMA trailers. Buffered with the double-entendre of "Mary's Kitchen," it's a great lead-in for Kevin Hayes' debauched "Humdinger." He stepped forward from his platform, hair flopping and a little unhinged, playing his banjo like Eddie Van Halen in warbled praise of the craziest party ever thrown.
Secor thanked the audience, noting that they have their choice of entertainment options in "St. Louie" - "Applebee's, Ted Drewes, Schnucks..." - before yelling, "Let's take it on down to the Lake of the Ozarks!" High-spirited opening to another party jam!
No. It was the hard-strummed rhythms and wailing harmonicas of 2008's "Methamphetamine." A song filled with stories of desperate poverty alleviated by the meth trade and the horrors it brings upon families.
While you're dancing OCMS is sneaking in the tale of one of the darkest truths of our society, happening right in here.
Keep dancing. The message will seep in. Not through lectures and harping, but through the punk-fired demolition of harmony and melody, five string instruments and a harmonica degenerating into manic noise that stretched on before Secor howled, "There's a war out there and it's fought by poor white men!" before falling back into noise, then a spell of dark silence.
"Take 'Em Away" makes a good comedown from the party and its aftermath. Soft and heartfelt, gentle. But it continues the message: "My heart is broken because my spirit is not free/Lord, take away these chains from me." Poverty, loss, hopelessness, and attempts to find anything that will ease the pain. Felt rather than taught.
From there OCMS ran through a series of new and old tunes before dedicating "Ain't It Enough?" to Aurora, Colo. Less than 24 hours after the movie theater massacre, the musicians would have been remiss not to touch on the tragedy when much of their music focuses on the violence of modern life and the ever-present, timeless need for simple, curative love and compassion. While the song is new, it fit the situation better than anything else they could have chosen: "Throw your arms 'round each other/and love one another/for it's only one life that we've got/and ain't it enough?"
Instead of letting "Ain't It Enough?" stand on its own, Old Crow Medicine Show put the song into action with "Wagon Wheel," providing the audience with the opportunity to join together in the life-affirming joy that comes from a song beloved by damn near everyone in the room. Counter the violence and horror with something beautiful and harmonic, celebrating pleasure and love that moves people to dance, sway and hold one another on a dark day.
Fighting about a slightly obstructed view seems pretty stupid right about now, doesn't it?
The band blasted through 18 songs in just over an hour. It was barely after 10 p.m. when they broke for an encore anchored by the aching "I Hear Them All" before they invited Chuck Mead and band to join them. "It's a big country show in the Show Me State tonight!" No kidding -- 10 musicians on stage, with Secor playing fiddle and harmonica while contributing vocals. With such a crowd on stage, OCMS had to reel in some of their dancing and stage antics. A decent price to pay for a tightly-played set that opened with Mead, OCMS's Gill Landry and Secor trading vocals on "Wabash Cannonball."
With no mention of the obvious dedication, the two bands ended the night with a nod to their roots, covering the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" featuring Grassy Knoll Boy Carco Clave on a sparkling steel guitar solo, and drummer Martin Lynds honoring Levon with just a snare and cymbal. Cooperative and tight, so many musicians worked to give a classic its due with enough power to make the audience collectively gasp when the band hit the song's stride.
That should have created enough goodwill and happiness to prevent silly arguments about sight lines and the massive theft of a band's livelihood.
Apparently not. But it wasn't for a lack of effort from one band that's a regular in St. Louis, and another that can't be blamed if it doesn't return for another four years.