Old Crow Medicine Show Make Old Bob Dylan New Again at NYC 'Blonde on Blonde' Concert

Old Crow Medicine Show performs during the FreshGrass Music Festival 2016 at Mass MoCA on Sept. 17, 2016 in North Adams, Mass.
Douglas Mason/Getty Images

Old Crow Medicine Show performs during the FreshGrass Music Festival 2016 at Mass MoCA on Sept. 17, 2016 in North Adams, Mass. 

Old Crow Medicine Show frontman Ketch Secor once described his musical influences as “Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan.” Secor made his name with “Wagon Wheel,” a song he wrote based on a snippet of a tune on a Dylan bootleg. Now, his band has spent the last year treating Dylan the way Dylan treated his own influences.

Last year, to mark the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Old Crow performed the album in its entirety at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The event coincided with an exhibit that explored Dylan’s time in the city -- Blonde on Blonde was the first of several albums he made there. Refreshingly, though, Old Crow -- which last month released a live album of the performance, 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde -- treated Dylan’s music respectfully but not reverentially, as jumping-off points rather than finished works.  

At New York's Town Hall on Wednesday night -- which Secor reminded concertgoers was Dylan’s birthday, although it seemed as though most of them already knew -- the band took things even further, with a, shall we say, Dylanesque mix of humor and fury. “Did you ever hear so much e-nun-ci-a-tion at a Bob Dylan concert?” Secor asked before the band played “Visions of Johanna.” Indeed, Secor seemed to be channeling Dylan’s stage patter from a couple of years before Blonde on Blonde, back when he was a too-cool-for-folk wise-ass. After a countrified version of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” and a lilting take on “I Want You,” Secor told a rambling story about going to New York to see Dylan open for the Grateful Dead and buying acid in Washington Square Park that turned out to be fake. “If the acid had been real, it would have sounded like this,” he said, before the band launched into a double-time punk-ish “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”

Old Crow take their Dylan very seriously -- so much so that there was an intermission between what older fans remember as the first and second records of rock’s first double album. When the band came back, Secor, in shades, added furious harmonica to “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” before the band went into a lilting “Temporary Like Achilles.” Old Crow played up the waltz rhythm of “4th Time Around,” then turned “Obviously 5 Believers” into a hoedown of superfast fiddle. “It’s great to be up here singing from the Great American Songbook,” Secor said, before the band launched into “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

For a considerable number of musicians and fans of Secor’s age and aesthetic, of course, Dylan is the Great American Songbook. Is there an Americana band that didn’t cover a few of his songs at one point or another? What makes Old Crow great is that they’re not afraid to build on them. Early in Secor’s career, he built “Wagon Wheel” out of a bootlegged Dylan song -- and eventually had a hit, plus a shared writing credit with Dylan.

Playing with one's influences can take guts -- the kind that Dylan himself displayed when he built his densely poetic songs atop a foundation of traditional American music. Dylan took tunes, motifs, even bits of lyrics to make music that was completely and thrillingly new. (One problem with Dylan’s recent albums of songs associated with Frank Sinatra is that they’re too literal.) Not for nothing did Dylan call one of his albums Love and Theft.

Its album played, Old Crow came out for a few encores, loose but still focused. The band’s six members shared an old-style mic to sing harmonies on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” then a rollicking “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Then they turned up the volume for “Quinn the Eskimo” before ending with a crowd sing-along of  “Wagon Wheel” -- another way to honor old music by making it new again.


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