A familiar drumbeat emanated from the backstage area…
After a few seconds of pounding, Old Crow Medicine Show emerged from the wings and began parading across the outdoor stage of Columbus’ Express Live!, bringing with them bass and snare drums, squeezebox, harp and other implements of musical construction and launching simultaneously into “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and their May 31 performance of Bob Dylan’s 1966 double LP, Blonde on Blonde.
The audience sang along boisterously on the chorus – “Everybody must get stoned!” And judging by the smell of things, many didn’t understand the track is more biblical allegory than invitation to fire up.
Though it’s been 51 years since Dylan released the seminal album, Old Crow – perhaps they, too mistook the sage’s sage advice and got high – are playing the classic record every night as they crisscross the country on their 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde tour. And they play the hell out of it, as the six Medicine men, augmented by two auxiliary musicians, render Dylan’s 14 folk/rock tracks in a bluegrass fashion and spread the fun over two sets of 40 and 60 minutes, respectively.
The group’s various vocalists resisted the temptation to ape Dylan, instead brining their own styles to the songs. And, the virtuoso band members switched instruments as often as Dylan’s changed styles over the years.
Three Old Crows took a seat behind the drum kit over the course of the evening; frontman and main singer Ketch Secor played harmonica, fiddle, guitar, mandolin and banjo, while Critter Fuqua – who did a hilarious impression of a mysterious, hoodie-wearing Dylan as Secor talked about meeting the man a few years back – chipped in on drums, banjo and guitar. Pedal steel, guitjo, piano and organ, standup bass and Dobro – even some fleet-footed tap-shoeing from Kevin Hayes, who brought his song-and-dance routine to the front of the stage for a rip-snortin’ rendition of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” – were part of the medicinal mix.
Secor spent the entire show dancing, prancing and generally playing like a madman. He paused early on to praise Dylan’s album – which they recently remade as the live LP 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde (and seemed genuinely honored to be revisiting the “Book of Bob.“ He pointed out that Blonde was popular music’s first double album and reminded fans that Dylan opened the door for musicians across the spectrum to use Nashville as a base for recording more than just country music.
While Secor’s enthusiasm was infectious, he could be was also overbearing at points. He made literally dozens of references to Ohio, O-H-Ten, Columbus, Franklin County or some nearby suburb throughout the evening— such as if Dylan had been from central Ohio, he would’ve named track No. 3 “Visions of Gahanna” (which elicited a few groans).
But wading through the stage banter was worth it to hear Old Crow Medicine Show’s inspired take on Blonde on Blonde. In their 16 capable hands, “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” and “Just Like a Woman” were more homages than reinterpretations; “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” struck an entirely new tone as OCMS added a bit of hillbilly shine to its decades-old patina; and “Obviously Five Believers,” though rendered on acoustic instruments, was every bit as electric as the original.
Old Crow Medicine Show closed the second set – as Dylan closed his album – with “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” The track took up all of Side 4 in 1966, but took up only about 10 minutes in 2017 and included band introductions.
The sextet-cum-octet continued the Dylanesque mood during the encore, as the six main Medicine men gathered around a single mic for a sublime reading of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” followed by an angry, true-to-the-original rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
The inevitable “Wagon Wheel,” an OCMS-Dylan collab across several decades, followed, before the band tipped their collective cowboy hats to the late, “great and legendary” Gregg Allman, who died May 27, as Cory Younts on organ and lead vocals, led his bandmates through a faithful remake of “Midnight Rider.”
“We love you, Gregg!,” Secor shouted as the song and the concert came to a close. And in that moment, any other banter was forgiven.