If you love “old tyme” music, you know it is rare for real pickin’ and grinnin’ greats to be featured on some of the largest stages there is. For whatever reason, large theaters end up being the biggest of stages where the true giants of folk, bluegrass and modern alternative country get to perform. Tonight was one of those truly rare moments, and the revelatory one-two punch of Old Crow Medicine Show and Brandi Carlile more than lived up to the stature necessary for a stage as prestigious as the Hollywood Bowl. Just completing a tour together with this very show, these two bands assembled a joyous collection of the finest of Americana-inspired genres.
Full disclosure: mxdwn has been covering both Brandi Carlile and Old Crow Medicine Show on and off since as far back as 2006. We were wowed early on in each act’s career, and each has had a long stretch to both hone and improve their skills to great affect.
Old Crow Medicine Show went first and wasted no time inciting an uproarious hootenanny. “Tell It” and “Alabama High Test” set the gears to rollicking with their drug-inspired, high riding-the-edge-of-the-cliff lyrics. On “Sweet Amarillo,” Ketch Secor leads the group on fiddle but gives the band the chance to make expert use of multi-part harmony. Later things ratchet up ever further as the group is joined by headliner Brandi Carlile for a pair of vintage all-star covers. First they do the John Prine/Bonnie Raitt staple “Angel from Montgomery” plucking out the melody with waterfall-like ambiance while Secor and Carlile trade off vocals. Then, they do a fun-loving rendition of blues standard “C.C. Rider.”
Following Carlile’s exit, O.C.M.S. fully capture the audience with a four-song batch to finish off their set with each becoming progressively more triumphant. The group reduces down to a four-piece and opts for the minimal amplification of a mini megaphone. With only ukulele and acoustic guitar they do four-part harmony on the warmly retro “Stealin’.” Then, they take the world-weary “I Hear Them All” and mutate it into a brief meditation on Woody Guthrie’s legendary “This Land is Your Land.” By then, they fully owned the crowd. They did even more so with their dead-on cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” They ended off with their signature song “Wagon Wheel,” a plucky, epic singalong. Whether the crowd was familiar or not, by the end they were all singing it’s refrain, “So rock me momma like a wagon wheel / Rock me momma any way you feel / Hey momma, rock me.” It was a thing to behold after that, watching them all stand back and receive a monstrous standing ovation from the crowd.
After a short intermission, Brandi Carlile took the stage with her four-member band (featuring twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth on bass and guitar respectively). After the rocking intro of “Again Today,” Carlile wildly proclaimed, “Oh my god. Are we really playing the Hollywood fucking Bowl? They don’t let us into places like this. Let’s raise hell!” An appropriate intro for another rocking tune entitled “Raise Hell.” Both songs are impressively rendered with convincing rocking enthusiasm. A more folksy number “Wherever is Your Heart” follows giving Carlile a chance to show off her considerable vocal power. The band reduces down to just Carlile and the brothers Hanseroth for the three-part harmony song “The Eye.” Carlile introduces this song explaining how her and the brothers first bonded in the late ‘90s over a love of three-part harmony in the style of Crosby, Stills and Nash though they never had the courage to try a song in that vein until recently. She quipped, “At the end of the day in this band there is no lead singer. Just a woman with a big ol’ mouth who thinks she is.” “The Things I Regret” follows as a mid-tempo inclusion, allowing Carlile to divulge in parts confessional and in parts world-weary remembrance.
At this point, three of the members of Old Crow Medicine Show returned the favor for Carlile’s presence in their set earlier and joined her for a ruminating take on The Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” Carlile trading verses with Ketch Secor. After that, Carlile performed a new, moving song entitled, “The Mother.” She did this one solo acoustic explaining beforehand how she was proudly married to a woman named Catherine (also extolling the freedom of a post Prop 8 California). She detailed how they had a daughter together named Evangeline Carlile. She professed love for her daughter, but also playfully called out in honesty how caring for a two-year-old can be a pain in the butt. Carlile playfully called out folks who claim that you never know love until you have a child, pointing out they might just be jealous of all the free time you have not having a child yourself. The song was a delicate dissection of the challenges and dedication of caring for a young child. The set proper then ends with an excellent cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.”
With just enough time for an encore, Carlile and her band return with all six members of Old Crow Medicine Show. Together, they perform two covers, the first of which Carlile indicates is by a woman she considers to be the queen of country. It’s Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” and the combined confection of all the pickers in O.C.M.S. along with her own crack band, it’s an eye-opening bed for which her superior vocal register to lie upon. Everything ends as strong as imaginably possible, with all the players uniting for a slightly jammed out take on Johnny Cash’s career defining “Folsom Prison Blues.” What more is there to say after that? On display here was what many true Americana/folk music fans have known for decades but most hip music fans blissfully ignore. Many of these folkster acts can play and collaborate with a finesse that 90% of music that people talk about can scarcely touch. It may not be as sexy or popular as some of what’s out there, but it’s as damn fine as we could hope anything to be.
Old Crow Medicine Show
Alabama High Test
Bootlegger’s Boy / Bones Gonna Rise / Elzick’s
Hangman’s Reel / Raise a Ruckus
Angel From Montgomery (John Prine cover) with Brandi Carlile
CC Rider (traditional) with Brandi Carlile
I Hear Them All w/ This Land is Your Land (Woody Guthrie cover)
Spirit in the Sky
Hard Way Home
Wherever Is Your Heart
The Things I Regret
Peaceful Easy Feeling (Eagles cover) with Old Crow Medicine Show
Going to California (Led Zeppelin cover)
Jolene (Dolly Parton cover) with Old Crow Medicine Show
Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash cover) with Old Crow Medicine Show
File photo by Sharon Alagna