“You come here with your boyfriend?” a rough looking dude in a Sublime t-shirt asks me. He’s unsubtly trying to read what I’m writing in my notebook; trying to understand why I’m silently taking notes when everyone else at the outdoor pit at Brewery Ommegang is hanging with friends; they’re drinking beer or passing around a joint.
“No, I’m here to review the show,” a little sternly, hoping he will leave me alone.
“You better write a good one,” he says, severely, when he sees I’m not interested. “I fucking love Old Crow.”
I fucking love Old Crow Medicine Show too, and although I’m probably the only person of color at this show and feel wildly out of place, I am excited as hell to be here. The clouds have temporarily parted in Cooperstown, and the ground is dry for the first time in days — it’s the perfect concert-going experience.
My gateway to Old Crow was “Wagon Wheel”, the way it is for everyone, but I soon discovered the deep repertoire of this band, and their quintessential American sound sustained me through months of homesickness, when I lived in India. I loved the band’s deep commitment to humanism, to the common person, to exploring life lived in its most desperately beautiful moments.
But Old Crow hasn’t come to Brewery Ommegang to play from their impressive, nearly twenty year deep catalog of music — this time, they’re playing the entirety of Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan’s seminal rock album, often ranked as one of the greatest albums of all time. It’s a mighty mountain to climb, but if anyone is suited to the task, it is Old Crow, who had a 2004 hit with “Wagon Wheel”, which was developed by the band’s frontman, Ketch Secor, from a few unfinished lines from Dylan’s liner notes. (Secor and Dylan share a writing credit on the song.) 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde, a live concert recording of the show, recorded in Nashville (where Blonde on Blonde was originally recorded) was released last month as an album.
“These songs, yeah, Bob wrote them,” Secor told Rolling Stone a month ago. “But they belong to all of us.” The show wasn’t a straight rehashing of the original album; it wasn’t a faithful reproduction of Dylan’s sound — it was clearly Old Crow doing its own thing. It’s an old adage of American popular music that Dylan generally sounds better in the hands of other musicians — Secor seemed to acknowledge as much when he told the audience jokingly that this performance would be “like Dylan at a festival, but with impeccable pronunciation”. I’m such a huge fan of Blonde on Blonde that I can’t say that anything tops the original. But that’s okay. Old Crow clearly intended to play homage to the master, instead of erasing the source material and repainting over it.
The off-kilter sound of “Rainy Day Women #12 &35,” the album’s messy introductory track, was probably the closest the band got to Dylan. The furthest the band strayed was with “Obviously Five Believers,” which Secor and the band transformed into a rollicking roots tune. (“Dylan never wrote too many hillbilly numbers, so we had to chickenscratch the hell out of this one,” Secor told the audience, grinning.) “One of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)” was reinterpreted as a lovesick ballad with Chris “Critter” Fuqua on lead vocals, while the band leaned into the humor of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” with Kevin Paul Hayes doing a campy soft-shoe. And the triumphant “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” was masterfully executed — the band’s musical virtuosity shining through.
Secor’s voice is, indeed, more polished than Dylan’s thin wail. But I don’t know if more polish that is what Blonde On Blonde really needs. Secor’s technically perfect “Visions of Johanna” left me cold. I was surprised to find I prefered Fuqua’s vocals on Dylan tunes over Secor’s — I say surprised, because in general, Secor’s songs vastly outperform any other members of the band. But something about Fuqua’s thin, reedy voice fit with the album perfectly. Go figure.
The concert itself deserves to be written about. My fellow music-lovers were just as entertaining as the live act — the middle aged white dude in the “This American Life” t-shirt, the hippie chick in her festival romper looking impossibly cute and also as if she hadn’t showered in three days, the hipster in the porkpie hat who made the incredible decision to skank to bluegrass music, the college boy with a more-on-top hairdo making out with his girlfriend to “Just Like A Woman”. It wasn’t just a great music-watching experience; it was a great people-watching experience. It was beautiful, belting out “Wagon Wheel”, Old Crow’s final encore number, with hundreds of similarly enraptured fans.
Old Crow Medicine Show, May 28, 7PM at Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown