Old Crow Medicine Show with Felice Brothers, Minglewood Hall, Memphis, TN 2/15
Eight decades ago a jug band member named Noah Lewis wrote Minglewood Blues and New Minglewood Blues, two songs with lasting impact in roots music and Grateful Dead lore. Lewis lyrics were pure blues, If you’re ever in Memphis, better stop by Minglewood/The women down there, they don’t mean a man no good. Four decades later the song was reshaped for the Grateful Deads first album, although the chorus remained nearly intact: If you’re ever in Memphis, better stop by Minglewood/Oh now, take a walk downtown there, all the women sure look good. The song has taken many forms, but Minglewood has always been a mystical place that encapsulates the lore of Memphis music.
Minglewood finally has physical incarnation, in the form of a spacious hall with crisper acoustics and gentler aesthetics than its Memphis brethren. Fittingly, Old Crow Medicine Showwhich covers Minglewood Blues on _Big Iron World_was tapped to open the venue. Fitting, also, because the bands rootsy ethos matched the lore of Minglewood and blues, folk and country that define Memphis.
The moody Felice Brothers opening set never quite decided if it wanted to be brooding or raucous. Still, it was full of highlights. Hazy purple lights cradled their mash of murder mysteries and drinking songs. At moments, they approached the musical looming Satanism of My Morning Jackets Dondante with shattering fiddle tremors filling full throttle grooves on Cypress Grove.
Old Crow Medicine Show warmed into their set slowly by breaking in the new venue like a baseball glove. Half a dozen songs into their first set, they hit their stride with the double punch of Alabama High Tail followed by the legendary bluegrass brawler Boatman. The first set concentrated on the nostalgia of the American highway; some were flower pickers, others high speed chases with the bandit fiddle soaring above rhythmic guitars and banjos pursuing like hounds.
As the first set continued to grow, Old Crow began incorporating the Felice Brothers and others, putting as many as eleven players onstage. The jumbo band hit its stride on Motel in Memphis. An ethereal jam powered by James Felices gasping organ raised ghosts and tension before succumbing to the gunshot bass and drums at the songs resolution. Before the dust settled a new riff blasted from the gate, with foot stomping, harmonica thumping, whiskey blues, with a little sweet cooing and titanic bass lines holding down the underbelly of the iconic Minglewood Blues. The choice was a nice, expected touch, cementing the bands confidence and officially christening the new venue.
The second set veered in a different direction, focusing on the perils of drug abuse. The serious lyrics was juxtaposed by loose and free jams, as the stage consistently held nine or ten musicians, a bubbling stew of banjos, fiddles, guitars, drums, an accordion, keyboard and harmonica. The stage looked like the cover of Basement Tapes, but unfortunately lacked their Dylan. The jamming was merry and uncongested, but for better or worse, lacked a leader. The mood was celebratory and utilitarian; if any musician differentiated themselves or their instrument it was by necessity. In normal circumstances this might have bothered me, but the jammers on stage were having such a good time, it was hard for the crowd not to.
Old Crow and Company took their time as they progressed through their dense set list with highlights including Tennessee Pusher and crowd favorite Wagon Wheel. There were few ostentatious jams, although Ketch Secors fiddle feedback histrionics on the Tennessee Pusher bridge briefly brought the music to an angrier place.
A suite of pleasing covers ended the night; most notably a dead on reading of Tonights the Night which allowed the moodiness of the Felice Brothers pitch to thrive. Lay Lady Lay and Ziggy Stardust concluded a night of musical ribaldry and laid a cherry firmly on top.