Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Charllottesville VA: The Big Surprise

August 11, 2009
The Big Surprise Tour @ Charlottesville Pavilion
Posted by Sean Moores at August 11, 2009 1:08 PM

The Big Surprise Tour
Charlottesville (Va.) Pavilion
Aug. 9, 2009

The Big Surprise Tour, a caravan composed of Justin Townes Earle, The Felice Brothers, Dave Rawlings Machine and Old Crow Medicine Show, rolled into Charlottesville Pavilion on Sunday night brimming with the promise of delivering a top-notch trip through the gamut of American roots music. Four hours later, the revue had more than lived up to its potential. It’s safe to say that The Big Surprise Tour is one of the best packages of the year. And it’s unlikely that concertgoers are going to find a better bargain, an added bonus in this turbulent economy.

The bang-for-the-bucks aspect of the show was on display from the start. The musicians gathered onstage and opened with the Felice Brothers song from which the tour drew its name, “The Big Surprise.” As the tune’s intensity built, so did the feeling that this would be a night on which great and unexpected things would be possible. (Though given the collection of talent, they might not be all that surprising.)

The stage quickly cleared save for Earle, his multi-instrumentalist sidekick Cory Younts and Old Crow’s Morgan Jahnig (acoustic bass), Ketch Secor (fiddle) and Gill Landry (pedal steel and dobro), who launched into Earle’s “They Killed John Henry,” from his recent release, “Midnight at the Movies.” Musicians came and went as Earle delivered an energetic set heavy on honky-tonk and folksy showmanship. An early highlight of the night featured back-to-back harmonica workouts by Younts on “South Georgia Sugar Babe” and “Halfway to Jackson.”

The camaraderie and collaborative spirit that brought these groups together were on display throughout the night. Younts, Landry and James Felice, who was the reigning keyboardist in tow, appeared frequently onstage, and each of the musicians showed up during sets other than their own. These groups clearly were kindred spirits, and their enthusiasm for performing was infectious.

Next up were the Felice Brothers, who share more with The Band than their Woodstock, N.Y., locale. Much of their material has a timeless quality, walking the line between the old, weird America of Bob Dylan and The Band’s “Basement Tapes” and more current settings and themes. They maintained the energy Earle brought to the proceedings with their rollicking, accordion-driven “Frankie’s Gun!” and the unreleased “White Limousine.”

After a brief intermission, Dave Rawlings Machine, the duo of Gillian Welch and longtime musical partner Rawlings, slowed some of the tempos a bit but gave a performance that was nonetheless intense. As the name implies, the focus is on Rawlings, and the pair relied on covers and Rawlings compositions rather than Welch’s impressive catalog. The set-opening “I Hear Them All,” which was co-written with Old Crow’s Ketch Secor and Willie Watson, segued seamlessly into and out of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land. (“I wrote everything but the really good part in the middle,” Rawlings quipped.) Rawlings and Welch’s voices blended nicely, as always, and Rawlings’ articulate picking and cascading notes from his small archtop gave ample evidence that he is a criminally underrated guitarist. Other highlights from their set included a pairing of Bright Eyes’ “Method Acting” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” Jesse Fuller’s (by way of the Grateful Dead) “The Monkey and the Engineer” and a set-closing cover of Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately.”

Old Crow Medicine Show, for all intents and purposes the night’s headliner, followed Rawlings and Welch with a mostly pedal-to-the-metal set that included crowd favorites “Hard to Tell,” “Minglewood Blues” and “Mary’s Kitchen.” The members of OCMS lived up to their name and reputation, playing with the intensity of an old-time revival. This time, they had lots of help.

The entire entourage returned to round out the evening. Earle led the group in his cover of The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait,” which lent itself to The Big Surprise Tour’s large chorus. The Felice Brothers next moved to the front with “Chicken Wire,” from their latest effort, “Yonder is the Clock.” Welch’s many, many fans in attendance cheered in delight when she and Rawlings kicked off her “Look at Miss Ohio.”

The only real misstep of the night followed, when the assemblage attempted to tackle the Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line.” Most of the singers were working from written-down lyrics, and a few stumbled over their lines. The changes from microphone to microphone led to uneven sound and at times no vocals at all. But their hearts were in the right places, and as Otis Wilbury (aka Jeff Lynne) sang on the original recording, “the best we can do is forgive.”

The encore featured two selections from the Old Crow songbook: “Tell it to Me” and “Wagon Wheel,” which has become a modern roots-music standard. The singalong, both onstage and off, spoke volumes about how music brings people together. One can only hope that these groups bring themselves, and us, together for future tours.