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    Saturday, November 26, 2022

    Old Crow Medicine Show electrifies Garde Arts crowd

    No musical artist on earth wanted to follow Jerry Lee “The Killer” Lewis when he was in his prime. As the story goes, in the late 1950s, due to a contract snafu at a multi-act concert in New York City, Lewis was enraged that he was next-to-last on the bill. Chuck Berry was the headliner.

    And so Lewis delivered his typical “ignition, liftoff!” show and closed by setting the piano on fire and hammering the keyboard through sheets of flame. Striding offstage, he said to Berry, “Let’s see you follow THAT!” (or a less printable variation thereof).

    Saturday night in New London’s Garde Arts Center, witnessing a remarkable two-hour performance by roots band Old Crow Medicine Show, I imagined some sort of time-travel trickery whereby roast-the-piano-era Lewis was standing in the wings, watching.

    When Old Crow finished their encore and exited for the dressing room, my compare/contrast scenario concluded with Lewis shaking his head ruefully, saying, “No thanks, fellas. I think I’ll sit this one out.”

    A fanciful speculation, to be sure.

    But, as long time Old Crow fans — or perhaps the previously uninitiated in the Garde Saturday — this is a band that NEVER gives less than maximum effort. They also have the material, musicianship and charisma to pull it all off in spectacular fashion.

    It started when all six Medicine Show members hit the stage as though blown from cannons, cavorting wildly through “Tell It to Me” and then “Alabama High Test” in front of a huge backdrop depicting the cover of their wonderful and latest album, “Paint This Town.”

    Twenty-five tunes later, under the direction of co-founder/frontman/multi-instrumentalist Ketch Secor, Old Crow had conducted a giddy instructional in virtually every style of music that falls under the “roots” category. While, for lazy purposes of categorization, they’re identified as a bluegrass band, the sextet burned through mountain music, Chautauqua tent gospel, “Hee Haw”-esque C&W comedy, front porch hillbilly, classic rock (“Honky Tonk Woman” and “Rock and Roll All Night,” no less), a sea shanty, a Ukrainian folk song, and an overall sort of feel-good experience associated with period musicals like “State Fair” or “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

    Yes, Secor is the band’s leader and one of the finest frontmen in music. He’s never NOT on. But every member had sparkling, spotlight moments. Both musically and in terms of between songs remarks and audience interaction, upright bassist Morgan Jahnig, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Cory Younts, slide guitarist Mike Harris, drummer/vocalist Jerry Pentecost and guitarist/vocalist Mason Via were all captivating, virtuosic, and clearly enjoying themselves.

    Pentecost and Via, in particular, worked magically with Secor in terms of intricate choreography and engaging personae. Via’s wide-eyed, “we’re puttin’ on a show!” boyishness was eerily convincing — as though the tour manager had to hunt him down on the Midway at the Big E and hustle to get him to the Garde by showtime. And Pentecost’s acrobatics — the ’round the body spins of his washboard and nimble, footrace circuits in-and-around his fellow musicians — were exhilarating.

    Oh, and anytime a band this entertaining raises their own substantial performance ante by bringing out a road crew member, Tyler Nichols, to put on a dizzying baton-twirling showcase during “Bombs Away”/”Flicker and Shine,” well, see the fantasized Jerry Lee saying “No thanks,” above.

    The sheer visual feast provided by OCMS almost — not quite — obscures the fact that many of the songs in their catalog are topical and ponder Big Questions in critical ways. But I suspect these messages, with a few witty but pointed comments between songs, were absorbed in more than subliminal fashion.

    Worth mentioning: the musicians’ mastery of New London lore. They referenced the Custom House museum, submarines, Connecticut College Camels, the Dutch Tavern and minutiae about the Garde. Impressive. Also, alluding to New London’s history as a whaling port, they did a boot-stomping, intricately arranged a cappella version of the chanty “Barrett’s Privateers” — presumably worked up for this particular show. Amazing.

    For those who couldn’t make it, the set list also included “Take ’Em Away,” “White Lightning,” “Gloryland,” “Paint This Town,” “Big Time in the Jungle,” “CC Rider,” “DeFord Rides Again,” “CC Rider,” “God Willing,” “16 Tons,” “Humdinger,” “Shout Mountain Music”/”8 Dogs 8 Banjos” and, of course, the iconic hit “Wagon Wheel.” There was also a lovely version of a Ukrainian folk song dedicated by Secor to “our brothers and sisters in Ukraine” and described as “a wedding song between my boot and Putin’s ass.”

    If all this wasn’t enough to provide fans with their money’s worth, support act Never Came Down,” a substantially talented bluegrass act from Portland, Oregon, more than earned the ecstatic standing ovation and encore and deservedly joined Old Crow for the evening-finale rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

    r.koster@theday.com

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