The Big Surprise Tour rolled into the Beacon Theatre leaving Upper West-siders wondering, “What’s the surprise?” Those going to the show were in on the know: Justin Townes Earle, The Felice Brothers, Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch, and Old Crow Medicine Show rolled up into one big hootenanny was the “surprise.” Over the course of a three and a half hour revue, more collaborations between performers transpired than on a T.I. album and each grew rowdier than the next, feeding the crowd’s alacrity. Leading off the night the lean Justin Townes Earle was perfectly dapper and droll — his charmingly southern Prof. Harold Hill persona a direct contrast to his father’s “hardcore troubadour” image. His quick talking interludes (“Ladies and gentleman we’re gonna take a quick trip down south to Georgia next”) flowing seamlessly with his repertoire of rags were a perfect compliment for his disarming vocals.
The Felice Brothers honed their brand of urban country-rock busking in the New York City subway but they performed like true Yankee bleacher creatures. Riling up the crowd with songs like “Run Chicken Run” and “Whiskey in My Whiskey”, their songs adhered to a hard-nosed insight, that’s only gained through country experience, while leaving ample room for rural romanticism. Oddly enough some members seemed to effuse hip-hop onstage: Chains, flat-brimmed Yankee caps, hands pumping the rhythm, even bumping and grinding a washboard.
After recovering and refueling during intermission Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch played. Despite Rawlings’ bodily contortions they sounded smooth and soothing, a combination of viscous harmonies and familiar standards. Though the crowd was hollering for them to turn it up (especially after “Monkey and the Engineer”), they kept it mellow with “Cortez the Killer” and “I Hear Them All / This Land Is Your Land”.
Ready to let themselves go, the crowd embraced Old Crow Medicine Show’s punk ethos. “Alabama High-Test” and other numbers showed an affinity for hard-strumming, harder harmonies, and a preference for pot. More or less the link between most of the assembled musicians, Old Crow lead an at times entangled set of group sing-alongs at the end. Ketch Secor and Rawlings sang lead on “We’re All in This Together” while Gillian Welch carried the load on “Look at Miss Ohio”. Perhaps the best group effort came on “Wagon Wheel”, Old Crow’s signature ballad. Though its placement was predictable, the subtle force and accompanying soul of 15 musicians playing it was a nice surprise.