An ignorant city kid’s take on Old Crow Medicine Show at SXSW

This is not my scene, I tell myself as I enter Fair Market prior to Old Crow Medicine Show’s SXSW 2018 set. But I’m a firm believer in getting outside one’s comfort zone (when it comes to music, not shoes; get some more comfortable shoes for tomorrow, I think) and I feel that swearing off an entire genre of music should be something we feel ashamed to do for its closed-mindedness. If nothing else, it’s antithetical to discovery, which is one of the greatest joys of music. So, here I am.

The band Old Crow Medicine Show performs at the Budweiser Country Club at Fair Market during the 2018 SXSW Music festival March 15. 03/15/18 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

I arrive early for this SXSW show, partly assuming Old Crow Medicine Show is some sort of barefoot Appalachian-style bluegrass act that the kids love based off the single song I know going in, “Wagon Wheel.” People do love them, I see—sprawling lines snake slowly into Fair Market—but I will soon learn my uninformed labeling of them is off base.

As I take my place under the metal semi-cylinder of the hangar, an energetic cap-wearing young man named Kane Brown is on stage. The crowd goes wild, but, if I’m being honest, I don’t care much for him or his medley of pop tune covers, including songs by Khalid (who I think to myself is playing across town not long from now as I flinch through this), Outkast, and The Fray.

PHOTOS: Old Crown Medicine Show at SXSW 2018

I swallow my distaste with a swig of beer from an aluminum bottle from the big brewery sponsoring this shindig. Brown leaves the stage, and a DJ fires up a crowd-pleasing selection of between-set tunes ranging from “Jessie’s Girl” to “Cupid Shuffle,” the later of which the masses totally take the bait for and begin dancing along to. As wedding DJ-ish as this move is, I support anything that gets people participating. And besides, I’ve decided to leave my judgment hat on the rack this evening.

Finally, Old Crow Medicine Show comes out to a rumble of applause. The frontman, a well-moustached man the internet will later inform me is named Ketch Secor (side note: which is an incredible name that rings with such an air of Star Wars bounty hunter rad-ness that I almost can’t believe it’s real) is a madman on stage, kicking about and singing at the top of his lungs like some sort of countryfied Cage the Elephant, another massively popular act I incorrectly assumed would be a snooze. These are the cases I love being proven wrong.

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The band is sharply dressed in denim, vests, boots, cowboy hats, and the like—far from the faux shabby mountaineer look I was expecting. A better surprise yet, rather than sleepy, soft and slow-paced folk, they’re firing on all cylinders, opening with a trio of stomping tunes featuring a storm of fiddle, the deep gut-punching grove of stand-up bass, and barrel-chested harmonies belted in unison, all performed at a runaway train tempo.

And of course, there’s some banjo—the cilantro of the string family: a complex and savory treat to some but a soapy-metallic meal-ruiner to others. Here it fits well alongside harmonica and the sweet sing of pedal steel guitar. This is the sound of a 20-year-old act that has honed their craft to a degree few ever get to. This is good.

The band Old Crow Medicine Show performs at the Budweiser Country Club at Fair Market during the 2018 SXSW Music festival March 15. 03/15/18 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The set continues this way, with the band swapping instruments and Americana sub-genres nearly every song, bringing out an accordion for some mid-set dabbling in Zydeco and Tejano music, cueing denim-ed couples across the space to spin their partners around the dancefloor.

The band jokes about playing until sunrise and the show continues without a slow point or misstep, building steam until closer “Wagon Wheel,” which, played here, is much more lively than I could have anticipated compared to the inescapable version I’ve heard on the radio.

“It all sounds a little sweeter in the Lone Star State, don’t it boys?” says Secor as the band winds down. I have to agree. The band exits the stage before one of the most genuinely demanded encores I’ve ever seen a crowd call for.

Old Crow Medicine Show’s new record, Volunteer, is due out April 20.


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