OCMS: Above the Fray

Kim took me to see Old Crow Medicine Show last night. She got me tickets for my birthday. This is the third time we’ve been to see Old Crow. The first time was the first year of the Salem Bluegrass Festival. The very conservative bluegrass crowd was shocked at the “Tell it to me” song, which features the word “cocaine” frequently in the song. They were not invited back to Salem. Some Old Crow lyrics can be found here.

The other times we have seen them have been at the Roanoke Civic Center. If you have never heard of Old Crow Medicine Show before, they may be difficult to pin down. Frequently they have the sound of an old time string band, but they mix that with lyrics more fitting the rock and roll drug culture. To me, the overall effect is Grateful Dead-ish, especially if you consider that Jerry Garcia played banjo with Old And In The Way, along with David Grisman and Peter Rowan. Old And In The Way definitely aimed at that old timey sound as well.

Despite all the genre bending going on here, OCMS has landed at the top spot on the Billboard Bluegrass chart with their new CD Tennessee Pusher. The OCMS following is typically college age through early 30s. There were a few people there older than me and Kim, but they definitely stood out. Even the name of the new CD combines Appalachia and drug culture. The “pusher” part is probably supposed to evoke a train theme,  but if you know the band, you know it has to be mean something else. The word “medicine” in the name of the band tells you what kind of pusher they are talking about.

Are these guys evil? No. The music is good, even if the lyrics are sometimes a a bit too obvious or explicit.

Other CDs from OCMS, like O.C.M.S., Big Iron World, and Eutaw had an alternating old time/bluegrass feel, but Tennessee Pusher does not. Tennessee Pusher falls more into the realm of Phychodelic Hillbilly or Grateful Dead gone acoustic. The most noticeable thing on Tennessee Pusher was the presence of drums. To me, that’s the first thing I listen for that completely removes the music from the Bluegrass category. The second is electronic instruments. There is some slide guitar and even Hammond organ on Tennessee Pusher. And yet it’s classified as a Bluegrass album. I was a little worried what the live show would look like when Kim showed me the tickets, but they didn’t tote a drum set or a synthesizer, and the slide guitar was just a dobro with a resonator top.

One instrumental oddity was the 6 string guit-jo. It was played like a guitar (single pick picking or strumming), and had 6 strings like a guitar, but looked like a banjo, with the resonotor back and drum head, so it sounded banjo-ish. A more traditional 5 string banjo was on the othe side of the stage, this one played without the resonator back, and played in a clawhammer style, sounding maybe more dixie land than bluegrass or old timey.

The live show felt much more in touch with what I think of as the OCMS sound than the CD did. Honestly, the Tennessee Pusher album was a little bit of a let down for me because of the instrumentation.

Speaking of the live show, these guys always perform well. They are high energy, acknowledge the audience, and are every bit the musical masters. The only complaint I had about the live show was the sound. Granted, there was a capacity crowd at the Roanoke Performing Arts Center, which means somewhere north of 2000 screaming 20-somethings. At some points, like the screaming for an encore, the crowd was simply deafening. I felt it physically resonating in the back of my throat. I’ve never heard a crowd alone generate so much noise.

The sound guys had to try to overcome this incredible racket. The result was vocals that were badly distorted, and completely buried instrumentals. A couple of times I thought I heard some clawhammer banjo coming through, but to make it discernible, it had become as badly distorted as a 1920s recording.

Kim and I were seated in the loge closest to the stage, which is incidentally also closest to the speaker stack. I know the difference between loud music and distortion. The sound engineers were forced into the quantity over quality region to overcome the crowd.

At last year’s event on Halloween night, the crowd rushed the stage and were actually dancing on the stage before the night was over. A couple retirement age security people were not able to contain them. This year security was better prepared. They had more security people, and had reconfigured the seats to make it easier to contain concert-goers. More importantly, this year they had a 3 beer limit, and warned people buying beer that shenanigans wouldn’t be tolerated. Still, it was a little pathetic watching the security people trying to push the kids back into their seats. Just let them dance. They weren’t hurting anyone, and it was fun.

Last year, security was also trying to keep people from using phones or cameras to record the concert. That was a losing battle. This year, I don’t think they made any such attempt. I saw a lot more digital screens in use. From our eagle’s nest seats we could see the whole thing unfold.

In the end, I think Old Crow is much better suited to outdoor events than indoor events in places meant to hold a symphony. Most bluegrass shows can be pulled off indoors, but this wasn’t really a bluegrass event.


One thought on “OCMS: Above the Fray

  1. Old Crow is a talented group, but I agree they are not straight bluegrass.

    I am Doc and play in a bluegrass band. We mostly do Flatt and Scruggs and Monroe numbers, but also some originals.


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