Old Crow Medicine Show at the Capitol Theater
Madison got "wheeled" at 9:47 last night. That's the term string-band snobs use to describe the unexpected radio play of the Old Crow Medicine Show megahit "Wagon Wheel." It's not a term of endearment.
Tell that to the audience at last night's nearly sold-out show at Overture Center's Capitol Theater, who, when the song began, jumped to their feet and wagged their asses in pure country bliss.
The show kicked off Old Crow's winter tour, a barnstorm that takes them to Minneapolis tonight and goes nonstop until they pull it to the curb in London in February. There's something about the first show of a tour, something that keeps performers honest and keeps the material meaty and raw.
Old Crow is flying particularly high this year. In January, after taking a performing and recording hiatus for the second half of 2011, founding member Chris "Critter" Fugua returned to the lineup. Fugua had been away since 2007, and his reunion with leader Ketch Secor was a cause for celebration. The two have made music together since middle school in Virginia.
So opening the show -- and the tour -- with the reel "Carry Me Back to Virginia" perfectly captured the moment. Fugua's clawhammer banjo and Secor's fiddle twined and climbed. Vocally, Fugua is less high and lonesome than the Willie Watson, the sideman he replaced. He makes up for it in grit and his bloodline relationship to the explosive Secor.
Old Crow has always been a string band with a punk impulse. Twin fiddles served up that excess during "My Bones are Gonna Rise Again," a gospel number informed by more hell than heaven.
Then there's the sweet side. "Levi," from the new record, "Carry Me Back," tells the solemn but hopeful story of a boy from the Blue Ridge serving in the Army in the Middle East. Secor dedicated the song, with a typical mix of respect and irreverence, "to the men and women who would like to be with us in America's Dairyland come Thanksgiving ... but instead will be carvin' it up in Kandahar."
Especially with the re-introduction of Fugua, Old Crow performs with the rowdiness of a family of brothers. But, like nearly every family, there's a misfit uncle. In this case, it's an instrument called the "Gitjo." Kevin Hayes plays this low-throated half-breed as well as anyone could. On the records, it disguises itself as a second dobro. Live, well, as my friend Katie leaned over and said, "It makes the act feel like a combination of a frat-house party and a puppet show."
Secor is a generous frontman. That must come easy, given the vocal talent in the band. Lead vocals were traded off throughout the night, which featured the timeless voice of guitarist Gil Landry and fiddler/guitarist/banjoist Chance McCoy. The band members are street buskers at heart, discovered on a corner in Boone, North Carolina, by a member of the Doc Watson family.
The band celebrates those busking roots during songs like "Mississippi Saturday Night." Free-for-all instrumental breaks are cause for the members to gather in small clusters of twos and threes, playing in semicircles for each other, feeding off it, then, recharged, spinning back to let the audience in on the show.
Like Chicago alt-country artist Robbie Fulks, as a showman, Secor is one part egghead and one part knucklehead. His comic improvisational abilities were constantly on display, riffing in mentions of Lakes Monona and Mendota and countless other Wisco references.
"And to think we could have seen Jersey Boys tonight, boys," he clowned, in reference to the other show at Overture Center last night. This was an agile, impromptu turn of the page for Secor, who used the Frankie Valli reference to set up a song by another popular music icon, Woody Guthrie.
"Y'all got something here we don't have down south," Secor said. "You got organized labor." The audience's cheers covered up the opening phrases of Guthrie's "Union Maid." The song was just one of a half-dozen exhilarating hairpin turns in the hot mess that ended the program: a barrage of a half-dozen numbers in the 25-song show. That brace of tunes included "I Hear Them All" (into "This Land is Your Land"), "Take a Whiff on Me," the lovely waltz "Ain't It Enough?" and finally, with the talented opener, Houston native Robert Ellis, a straight-up cover of the Waylon Jennings hit, "Good Hearted Woman" and a devotional take on Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."