With the force of an F5 tornado from the deep south, the boys from Old Crow Medicine Show swept into Madison Thursday night. In a nearly two-hour set, they managed to turn the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater into a northern Grand Ole Opry.
The band, armed with banjos, fiddles, guitars and a thumping upright bass, wasted no time once they hit the stage, launching into “Carry Me Back to Virginia” from this year’s release Carry Me Back. The song, loosely based on an old Civil War tune of the same name, set the pace for a night of raucous melodies with an audience that was more than happy to hoot, holler and dance along.
Before concert-goers received little more than a “hello,” the band had raced through four songs, including “Alabama High Test” and “Caroline,” complete with Dylan-esque harmonica licks, instrument tradeoffs and gregarious stage dancing, all with more energy than some bands put out in an entire evening.
When lead singer Ketch Secor finally addressed the audience, he began a night filled with Wisconsin references, paying tribute in full to the state playing host. Ketch took every moment to talk of State Street and the Badgers, name dropping places like Waukesha, Sheboygan and Eau Claire, or about a band tour of the Capitol.
“That’s a voluptuous gal. A real dairy maid, you know”? he said of the woman known as “Forward” outside the building, adding, “I met a girl like that on a train in Tomah, Wisconsin.”
When Ketch was not busy talking, he was busy trading the spotlight with fellow members Kevin Hayes and Christopher “Critter” Fuqua.
Fuqua, having returned to the band after a four-year hiatus, was right at home on the opening show of the tour. His stage performance saw him effortlessly switching between guitar, banjo and accordion, in addition to delivering lead vocals on a few songs such as “Take ’em Away,” a self-penned track from the band’s debut O.M.C.S. While it is one of the group’s slower songs, it was not even close to mellowing an audience that could not get enough. Playing to that excitement, the boys started into a final stretch of tunes prime for sing-alongs.
Kicking off with a relaxed version of “Wagon Wheel,” the group got nearly everyone in the place on their feet but, surprisingly, the band’s biggest hit did not garner the biggest response of the night. Instead, the audience, in true Madison form, roared loudest for the Woody Guthrie work anthem “Union Maid.” The song is an oldie, recorded for 2006 release Big Iron World, but it of course had to be pulled out for this show.
However, that was not the end of the band tipping its hat to the music it loves, as it brought out opener Robert Ellis to cover Willie Nelson’s “Good Hearted Woman” and Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” a soothing track perfect to wind down an evening of over-the-top performances. For Robert Ellis’ part, he may have taken the stage as an unknown solo act, but he was on the lips of many by the time the show was over.
There may not have been a better pick as an opener than Ellis to match the drive of the Old Crow gang. Coming out of Houston, Ellis’ music showed a clear influence of Texas greats such as Rodney Crowell in the lyrics of “Westbound Train” and the humor of Jerry Jeff Walker on “No Fun.” Athough he was playing solo, Ellis could bust out a lightning-fast guitar lick that would not be out of step with Old Crow Medicine Show.
Even as Ellis dipped more into the mellow side of music, playing the wistful “TV Song” with a James Taylor sensibility in the lyrics and picking, his focus and appreciation of the attentive audience was never in question and momentum was never lost. Gratefully, he thanked the crowd numerous times, clearly enjoying his moment in the limelight.
“Most of the time I think of it as me versus the audience,” he said, feeling he has to compete with the noise level of a chattering crowd. “But I like this.” And given the overwhelming response concert goers had for Ellis, it was clear they liked it, too.