I try be rational, apply reason and avoid superstition in my life, and at times it’s probably just as well. If this wasn’t the case I would have developed some aversion to listening to the Super Furry Animals while travelling through the Midlands by train, as the only two times I’ve ever been on a train that has completely broken down, that’s what I was doing. I would also have come to believe that any contact between me and bluegrass quintet the Old Crow Medicine Show is cursed: I was unable to get to their gig on July 21st 2005 owing to the transport ramifications of that day’s failed terrorist attacks; the first time I ever saw them (supporting Gillian Welch in 2004), I found out the following day I’d been turned down for funding for an MPhil; and I received some unwelcome news this week in the run-up to their show on Saturday at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
It’s just as well I’m inclined to write these things off as coincidence and chance, as if I took them seriously I would probably have denied myself a seriously enjoyable gig. Five men standing in a line across the front of a stage, playing songs very firmly and self-consciously within the bluegrass idiom doesn’t sound like a recipe for top-quality entertainment… but that’s exactly what it turned out to be.
For one thing, the crowd absolutely loved them from the moment they strode on-stage at about twenty past eight, with no support act. There was a real mix of greying beardie types who had brought their wives along and younger folk, many – but by no means all – evidently American. I’m a bit stumped to explain how OCMS have drummed up such popularity – perhaps a lot of people who saw them on the Welch tour took to them, as I did – but it’s good to see.
For another, the faster bluegrass songs can put across a hell of a lot of energy. Granted, musically they all sound more or less the same, with frantic fiddle and banjo providing a treble-heavy rhythm. One of OCMS’s virtues, however, is that they sing high-quality songs: when the lyrics kick in, usually delivered with tasty two and three part harmonies, the songs distinguish themselves from one another. The band are also able to hold the crowd’s attention during the many downbeat, dustbowl songs they peddle; some taken from old blues players, some original.
After an interlude, they rip into Tell It To Me, and towards the end of the second part of the set unleash the other highlight of their debut album, Wagon Wheel. After this – a ginormous singalong – the crowd bays for more after every song. This extends to two encores, the second evidently unexpected even for the band, as the house lights briefly come on before they return to the stage. The show is kept going admirably by the fiddle-player who looks alarmingly like John Barrowman, and who does a lot of the talking. All in all, a pretty magic show on “a rainy night in London town”.