Approaching Chicago’s Vic Theatre, I was anticipating a sweaty and exhausting night. Americana extraordinaires Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS) were in town, and listening to their panoply of sound (everything from bluegrass to folk, country, gospel, jug band, traditional, rock and blues) could be an endurance event, as their youthful exuberance easily trumps any old-time music stereotypes.
Regrettably, I showed up halfway through the band’s first set. As expected they were in the midst of tearing up the stage, with a packed main floor absorbing every note. On stage musicians Ketch Secor (fiddle, harmonica, banjo and vocals), Willie Watson (guitar, banjo and vocals), Kevin Hayes (guitjo and vocals), Morgan Jahnig (bass), and Gill Landry (slide guitar, banjo and vocals) were picking and stomping out their original “Raise a Ruckus.” Sparks practicaly flew.
Soon they toned it down and followed with “Next Go Round,” a slower bluegrass ballad. It was symptomatic of the entire show as OCMS toyed with each song’s mood and theme by intertwining fast, knee-slapping jug songs with crooning serenades. Between sets they sang traditional roots tunes “Hard to Love,” “Tear it Down,” “CC Rider,” and “Tell it to Me,” intertwined with covers “Corrina Corrina,” “Minglewood Blues,” and “Down Home Girl.” Singing original compositions of love, heartbreak, distressed cities, living the good life, partying, hustling, trafficking and boozing transformed the Vic Theatre into a back porch nestled deep in Appalachia. All that was missing was moonshine.
The band mostly played acoustic, with an occasional crossover to electric guitars, bass, keyboard and a hint of drums, as they performed selections from all three of their studio albums with an emphasis on their 2004 eponymous debut. The strongest crowd response came from OCMS’ classic “Wagon Wheel,” a tune Secor wrote by completing fragmented Dylan lyrics from 1973. A crowd pleaser for sure, it got everyone singing along to its sweet intonations.
While the band raged on stage the theatre remained absolutely packed making it difficult to both maneuver and claim a suitable spot. Strangely, there weren’t many people dancing. I noticed several people standing tall with their arms crossed across their chests and some sitting down, blockaded by standing spectators.
Though it seemed that audience enthusiasm was lacking (shocking for any Chicago gathering), the fans saved their true appreciation between numbers. It appeared that those who went wild during actual songs were those girls lusting over the band’s good looks (including one particularly hysteric woman screaming out Secor’s name, followed by “you’re sexy!,” at the top of her lungs.) At one point during the second set one bold fan tossed a bra onstage towards Watson and Landry stage left, making them feel like true heart-throbs.
The evening was brought to a close with a two song encore, featuring an electric country rock rendition of “Get Back” by the Beatles.