Friday, August 14, 2009

Nashville Scene: Big Surprise Tour name like The Big Surprise Tour is bound to invite speculation about what unexpected things the acts on the bill have in store. And—just to clarify—the acts on this nine-date package tour are Old Crow Medicine Show, the Felice Brothers, Justin Townes Earle and the Dave Rawlings Machine (as in, Rawlings as frontman with Gillian Welch supporting).

James Felice—accordion and organ player for the Felice Brothers—places all tour-related curiosity in perspective. One minute he's describing his band's wide-open musical sensibilities; the next he's stumbled onto an absurd idea.

"Who knows what we're going to sound like tomorrow?" Felice says. "We'll get inspired to go in a different direction, then it's all over. We'll all be playing electronic music on keyboards onstage, laptop computers. Maybe that's the big surprise."

He considers this scenario a moment, then goes further: "It's all, like, laptops and Nord keyboards and a DJ booth. I just let the cat out of the bag. That's what's going to happen. And have a small Swedish girl singing bizarre vocals."

He's kidding, of course.

Sure, all these performers reserve the right to expand on and update the rootsy things they do. Old Crow leavened their string band-based sound with a classic rock feel on last year's Tennessee Pusher. In recent years, Rawlings and Welch have spent more time artfully covering Neil Young, Bob Dylan and even Cyndi Lauper, and sitting in with Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley than they have channeling Appalachia in their own indelibly haunting songs.

The Felice Brothers applied more of a punkish attack to parts of their latest album Yonder Is the Clock than they did to its self-titled predecessor. The title track of the country-, ragtime- and blues-reviving Justin Townes Earle's second album, Midnight at the Movies, isn't pitched far from delicate indie ruminations of this decade.

"When I was indulging in Mance Lipscomb and Lightning Hopkins, I would study that stuff," says Earle, no doubt listing LPs he found in his dad, Steve Earle's, collection. "But then when I was sitting around smoking a joint, I would put on The Replacements or Carl Perkins, Billie Holiday or Chet Baker. There's no such thing to me as strict old-timey. I pay very close attention to all kinds of music, because I just don't think that old-timey's the rule."

True enough. But it's also true that the acts have distinguished themselves by drawing some on old-timey basics (if not acoustic instruments, at least live ones that can be played with demonstrable vigor) and by flat-out entertaining.

For some of them—Old Crow and Earle especially—that can take the form of jaunty stage banter. "I mean, 50, 60 years ago, there was a style of performance and a warmth and a connection between the performer and the audience that really does not exist today—and especially amongst singer-songwriters," says Earle. "I don't want to pay $15 to see the record performed live. It's like, give me a fucking break. I like it to be two separate things: Be serious about making the records, but then onstage it's all about just making sure everybody has a good time and they want to buy that ticket again."

The Felice Brothers—who, like Old Crow, developed a knack for showmanship by busking on street corners—burst with unbridled energy live. And Felice shares Earle's convictions about performing: "That's why people will drop a pretty good amount of money for a ticket for a couple hours. They want to be entertained, forget about the crap that's going on in their lives, just have a damn good time. That's our job, to make sure everybody in the audience is having fun."

Laptops aside, the tour—named for the epic lead track on the Felice Brothers' latest and dreamed up by members of Old Crow after the two bands shared a string of dates—has plenty of space built in for the element of surprise. A point of the tour and what makes it an experience—for the musicians and audiences—is that they're not just doing their own sets, but also mixing it up together.

That's a bigger change for Earle than anybody. As the only solo singer and songwriter in the bunch, he's the odd man out. "You know, I did decide to become the boss [of my musical career] and I'm not saying that that was the greatest decision," Earle says. "It's a very difficult situation a lot of times, because when shit goes down, it's nobody else's problem but mine. There's not five other guys that have stock in it and can help fix the problem. It will be really nice to not have it all on my shoulders for a little while."

Exactly what they'll play together is the unknown element. Maybe a little pre-war blues here, a little country-rock there, and some communal originals cooked up just for the occasion—above all, material that lends itself to a big, loose band.

The vibe of the tour is meant to be pretty spontaneous. Everyone convened in Vermont—minus Earle, who was playing a music festival on the West Coast at the time—to brainstorm and jam a little just before they hit the road. "I think it's going to definitely have a lot of energy," says Felice. "That's the one thing we're not worried about."
There was a time, early this decade—before Old Crow had wooed a big new audience to hot acoustic music, before Earle had gotten clean and he and the Felices had started putting out albums, before O Brother had faded in everyone's minds—when Welch's name would've been the first and biggest on the marquee for a tour like this. But as the Big Surprise billing suggests, she cares little about name recognition for its own sake. After all, she and Rawlings—in an egalitarian move—flipped lead and supporting roles in the Dave Rawlings Machine, and she's done a lot of guesting on other people's projects since she released anything under her own name.



The Big Surprise Tour featuring Old Crow Medicine Show, Dave Rawlings Machine (w/Gillian Welch), Felice Brothers & Justin Townes Earle
Playing Thursday, 13th at Riverfront Park

But Welch's and Rawlings' importance to the still-growing, indie-friendly scene of musicians with rock 'n' roll-informed, old-timey sensibilities that's showcased on this tour can't be denied. The whole thing—these particular acts tumbled together this particular way—ought to be a good time, and it bodes well for the present and future of the music.

"Some of us have known each other for upwards of about 15 years," Earle says. "It's just really cool that it's finally coming together and we're getting to work with people that think like us. Shit, I'm getting to work with people that I've looked up to for years—those musicians who...forged the way with old-timey music, you know, the Old Crow boys and Dave and Gil."

"It'll be fun," he adds, "because I mean, when I was, like, 14, I used to drink a bottle of Thunderbird wine and go into the Radio Café and see The Esquires. It was Rawlings playing guitar and Gil playing bass and David Steele playing drums. And they did Bob Dylan and Tom Waits covers. It was awesome."