Monday, August 10, 2009

Big Surprise: Philly

The Delaware Online

With a show stacked with American roots acts — Old Crow Medicine Show, the Dave Rawlings Machine featuring Gillian Welch, The Felice Brothers and Justin Townes Earle — a guided tour of country, blues and old time music was expected at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia Friday night.

So after nearly four hours of music and with all four acts on the stage for a show-stopping encore, you might expect a sing-a-long to Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” or maybe Neil Young’s “Helpless,” no?

Instead, the familiar driving beat of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” filled the converted warehouse for a ramshackle tribute to the King of Pop — a tribute that included Gilliam Welch singing a verse, along with the elder statesman tour, her longtime collaborator, Rawlings.

It was a fitting end to a marathon night of music, dubbed “The Big Surprise Tour,” that celebrated all types of American music with Earle, son of Americana hero Steve Earle, opening the night with a set of retro honky tonk tunes, winning over the crowd with his “Revenge of the Nerds” look, complete with too-short white pants and matching white shoes.

Earle sounded like a country star from the ’50s as he sang the songs from his first two albums — nothing like the current roster of pop products that reside on the top of the country charts. The lanky Earle made the most out of his 30-minute set, which included visits from a rotating cast of musicians from the tour, something that happened throughout the night.

Earle’s pleasant opening led us to a high-powered triple threat, starting with The Felice Brothers and their raucous set of controlled chaos with band members crashing into one another, letting the stage show sometimes overshadow their music.

Just like with the Michael Jackson song, the Felices are not what you might expect. Sure, they are an emerging Americana act, but their fiddle/washboard player, Greg Farley, was found on this night wearing a sideways New York Yankees hat and a plain white t-shirt as he acted as the band’s hype man in between songs. As he leaned over the lip of the stage rapping about how the crowd should “shake it,” Farley looked more like a member of 50 Cent’s crew, minus the fiddle and washboard, of course.

Still, the band is grounded by the otherworldly voice of lead singer Ian Felice, whose lyrics and tone hearken back to the The Band’s time at Big Pink, near where the Felice Brothers are also from. Not only did the singer — think of a more gravelly Paul Westerberg on “Stereo” — score on songs like “Frankie’s Gun” and “Penn Station,” his childlike circular runs while playing guitar were especially endearing considering the band’s groggy bassist, Christmas, seemed a bit lost as a whirlwind of activity surrounded him.

After a 20 minute intermission, out came the Dave Rawlings Machine with Welch taking an unusual backseat to her longtime guitarist/producer Rawlings.

Rawlings leaned mostly on songs he co-wrote for others and cover songs for his 50-minute set, including some real gems. “I Hear Them All,” which appears on Old Crowd Medicine Show’s “Big Iron,” included. Towards the end, the song melted into Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” one of several nods to the tour’s musical forefathers, which also included a Rawlings/Welch collaboration on Young’s “Cortez the Killer.”

Rawlings’ slowed take on “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” which he co-wrote with Ryan Adams for Adams’ 2000 solo debut, “Heartbreaker,” was a great surprise, especially with Welch’s singing in the background.

But it was their expansive version of Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” with Benmont Tench, a founding member of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, on organ that made for the night’s best musical moment. The combination Tench’s organ solo with Rawlings’ unique guitar work brought the song closer to a transcendent Grateful Dead version of the song than the version Dylan sings these days. (Tench sat in with all acts throughout the night, which was a welcomed surprise.)

By the time Old Crow Medicine Show came on stage, the crowd was already more than 2-1/2 hours into the concert. But the fan base for the old time string band is as dedicated as they come, dancing early to “Humdinger,” with Felice’s Farley sitting in on fiddle, and “Alabama High-Test.”

“This little number is straight out of Delaware — straight out of the gritty streets of Wilmington,” joked OCMS singer/fiddle player Ketch Secor before the traditional “Poor Man,” a song that ushered in a taste of Depression-era music from the band, including “C.C. Rider,” bringing the ghost of blues/folk Leadbelly into the mix.

Soon, the stage was full with 15 musicians as the four acts came together to close out the night. After the Jackson tribute, Earle took the lead on The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” and Welch finally came to the front and sang “Look at Miss Ohio,” one of her own songs.

But as expected, the musical revue did come down to a Dylan sing-a-long.

Well, sort of.

OCMS dug out their greatest hit, “Wagon Wheel,” which includes long-discarded lyrics from Dylan. With Rawlings and Welch, early mentors of OCMS, mingling with the newest generation of their inherited musical movement, they sang with one voice, taking the crowd through one last journey through the past: “Rock me mama like the wind and the rain/Rock me mama like a southbound train/
Hey, mama rock me.”