Old Crow Medicine Show singer-fiddler-banjoist-guitarist-mouth harpist Ketch Secor is a star. At the Bowery Ballroom last Wednesday, Ketch was dressed like a boarding schooler on a first date—Oxford shirt neatly tucked, shaggy hair sinking into his eyes—as he rocked his long torso and six-shooter hips to the Nashville old-timey band’s tumbling gaits. When he sang their CMT hit, the would-be trucker anthem “Wagon Wheel,” Ketch swooned into the mic stand, pining for love 500 mile markers and two joints away. On this man’s loins Old Crow’s future rests.
Old Crow Medicine Show’s self-titled 2004 release is split evenly between originals and covers. The latter lean toward traditionals like “C.C. Rider,” while the former, mostly country-blues ballads, are their best songs. When OCMS played “We’re All in This Together” (now covered by Norah Jones) toward the end of their second set, the Bowery succumbed to singer Willie Watson’s intense tenor (somewhere between Buddy Holly and Joan Baez) and cooed the title lyrics with him as sleet bombed the pavement outside.
Though string-band music demands instrumental dexterity, mutton-chopped guitarist-banjoist Critter Fugua is the only real picker of the bunch. While the rest of the band simply strummed major chords, Fugua supplied banjo flourishes and baritone harmonies, and sang his stirring anti-war tune “Big Time in the Jungle” about an Alabama boy sent to Vietnam for “an ideal he didn’t even know about.” Another lefty anthem (not on the album) followed, this one likely about Iraq. “You’re proud of your boy for doing his part/But then he comes home with a tear in his heart,” Watson sang, his face contorted like he was tongue-wrestling a barracuda.
Seemingly on loan from Phish—an encore of the Dead’s “One More Saturday Night” got a big response—the crowd was intent on dancing; even the four off-duty cops smoking indoors stomped sneakers. The reaction to Old Crow’s mild sloganeering was harder to gauge. The hippie-ish “love one another” pleas earned cheers, but the overtly political damnations begat silence. Fame will soon lift her skirt for the band, but the real challenge might be turning popularity into populism.