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Old Crow Medicine Show whooping it up onstage at the Black Bear Casino.
On Friday, Oct. 20, I attended a concert at the Black Bear Casino for the first time. I had been tracking what acts would be booked at this venue in anticipation of checking it out. So when I saw that Old Crow Medicine Show was booked for this date, I went for it.
The ringleader of this versatile and exciting group of accomplished musicians is Ketch Secor (fiddle, harmonica, guitar, banjo, vocals). Mason Via (guitar, guitjo, mandolin, vocals) and Cory Younts (mandolin, keyboards, banjo, harmonica, vocals) were right out in front with Secor. Other band members contributing to the wild show were Morgan Jahnig (standup bass), “Big Mike” (slide guitar, guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, guitjo, vocals), Dante’ Pope (drums, percussion, piano, vocals) and PJ George (banjo, accordion, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, guitjo, drums).
The concert was full of surprises, not only for me, but also for the gaggle of Duluth music lovers who made it out to Carlton to see this band. Online descriptions of the band’s music include Americana, alternative country, folk-country, old-timey jug band and Appalachian bluegrass infused with new punk energy. So the expectation was something similar to Trampled By Turtles—indie music with lots of nouveau bluegrass, but this wasn’t exactly what we got.
Yes, there were a few “Speed Grass” numbers, but the range of the genres hit upon was remarkable. Ketch and Mason were real showmen and regular live-wires, kicking up their heels and cavorting around the stage while playing and singing. They were nothing like this when I first saw the band perform at the Egg Theater in Albany, New York, 10 or so years ago. That was a good concert, but staid by comparison to what we witnessed this night. It made some of us wonder whether casino gigs tend to be more like Vegas shows than concerts.
The show got started promptly at 7 pm with a high-test version of “Cocaine Habit.” From there the OCMS dove into hillbilly music, with banjo and rub board that struck some of us as an act right out of the old TV show, Hee Haw. There were definitely some hokey elements at play, but they were having such a good time on stage, it was hard not to enjoy the entertainment.
Besides a few original tunes there were lots of classic covers—among them "Proud Mary,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Tequilla.” But then some gospel and union labor songs were thrown into the mix. The cowboy genre was there too with songs like “Sweet Amarillo.”
About halfway through the show it was story time, with Secor making reference to their gigs on Prairie Home Companion and Lake Wobegone, Dylan, and travels through Thunder Bay, Ontario, and International Falls (which indicated they know nothing of our regional geography!). There was a slew of Canadians in the audience that he gave shout outs to and were a testimony to the band’s loyal following resulting from tours across Canada in their earliest incarnation.
This chatty interlude served as a bit of a break for the band after which they rolled right into a righteous rendition of “Sixteen Tons” followed up by “CC Rider” and Margaritaville,” the latter a tribute to the recently deceased Jimmy Buffett. A jews harp duet was impressive, then it was on to a song, the title of which I didn’t catch, but where the band sounded to me like the Blind Boys of Alabama. Another impressive cover was that of Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Secor gave it a highly dramatic treatment, with out-and-out wailing at the end.
Of all the songs that people associate with OCMS, “Wagon Wheel” has to be the best known, having gone gold in 2011 and platinum in 2013. Part of it was originally written by Bob Dylan in 1973 for the soundtrack to the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which Secor heard on a bootleg recording and developed into the song as it’s now known. The band didn’t disappoint, blasting out a rousing rendition as the grand finale. Of course there was an encore—two songs, “Rock and Roll All Night” followed up by “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”
The Black Bear Casino music venue was decent, though perhaps the sound quality varied by where one was sitting. As I was dancing in the rear of the room, which holds an audience of 1688, I didn’t notice this. It was a wide rectangular and level seating area, giving decent views of the stage to all, augmented by two jumbotrons flanking the stage. This was a welcome amenity since it allowed everyone to see the musicians’ instrumental work and choreography. Would I take in a show here in the future? You bet. And I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed OCMS’s performance.
An additional treat this evening was seeing Russ Sackett with his Sidestreet Detour band playing in the adjacent bar after the show. They have become a much tighter band since I first heard them early this summer during Superior’s Porchfest. They play both covers and originals. Not only did we get in more dancing, some of the OCMS members poked in to see what was up in there, giving us a chance to meet and chat with them. Overall, it was a very satisfying evening of music.
On Sunday evening, Oct. 22, it was off to the Toronzo Cannon concert at the West Theater. Jim Lundstrom’s interview with him that ran in last week’s Reader (10/19/23) reported Cannon saying he saw himself as an ambassador for the Chicago Blues. And a great ambassador he was on this evening, along with his backup band, The Chicago Way. Band members are Brian Quinn (bass), Dedrick Blanchard (keyboards) and Donté Michael Phillip Burgess (drums).
From the first number, these four played with high energy (despite the small audience that turned out for this concert). Bassist Quinn had a flamboyant picking style that looked like he was giving his guitar a beating. They played all original compositions. Many of the songs had lyrics that dwelt on contemporary issues, such as “My Life Crisis” and “Insurance.” Others were more typical—divorce, cheating (“I Believe My Baby Knows What’s Going On”), desire (“I Want You”) and general blues (“Walk It Off” and “If You’re Woman Enough To Leave, I’m Man Enough To See You Go”).
One of the sweeter numbers was dedicated to his Grandfather, who was born in 1917 in Jackson, Mississippi. It featured an ever-increasing tempo. Friends more knowledgeable than me observed that Cannon, who plays left-handed on an upside down custom electric guitar, took on a Jimi Hendrix persona at times.
To wrap up the show, Cannon announced he would play “two songs for ladies of a certain age.” These were “My Baby Loves Me Too Much” (a facetious title) and “Fine Seasoned Woman” which itemized the qualities that older women have that young chicks don’t. And finally there was a mashup of several songs, one of them being Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” This was a good blues session all the way around and I intend to listen to more from this bluesman in the future.