The closing night of the three-day Campfire Trails event at East London’s The Troxy was highly anticipated enough for hosting bluegrassers Old Crow Medicine Show and their frequent touring partners Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, and yet Friday, rounding off two prior evenings headlined by The Felice Brothers and Wild Beasts respectively; culminated in a ferocious display of musical talent and surprise special guests, making this one of the live performance highlights of the year – not to mention hugely surpassing most punters already sky high expectations.
It has been some time since Rawlings and Welch have toured on British soil, resulting in various discussions surrounding the recording outputs of the latter since her most recent album Soul Journey – released a not so recent seven years ago in 2003. Rawlings, with last year’s Friend of a Friend LP, seems to have taken the reins of their musical partnership originally fronted by Welch, of course leading to speculation over her retirement from songwriting as she now finds her place in the sidelines of the now named Dave Rawlings Machine incarnation. Regardless, her mere presence and sporadic interjections between songs was enough to fill the gap in touring and recording for those present.
While a first glance of the track listing for Friend of a Friend displays a collection of songs from some of the best singer-songwriters of the past four decades you’d be mistaken for considering phenomenal guitarist Rawlings a glorified master of covers; and though his opening set did consist of an array of these, he certainly raised the bar high with his reimaginings. His success as an artist lies in his capabilities of reinvention: turning the angered poetic of Oberst’s “Method Acting” into a contemplative, almost hymnal chorus, while seamlessly traversing the timeless topics covered in “I Hear Them All”, co-written with OCMS frontman and fiddle player Ketch Secor, and stitching them with Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. While single track from Welch, of “Look at Miss Ohio”, neatly paired with the Dylanesque tones of Rawlings and Secor’s southern drawl was enough to please hungry ears.
Nashville’s OCMS have long been heroes in their modern bluegrass guise and yet it was somewhat surprising to see the plush, art deco Troxy packed to the rafters with varying ages of punters – even more so when various accounts of Old Crow’s last London gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire noted slight hurdles in projecting their sound in such a venue. Performing to a 2,000 strong crowd, a 90 minute set of original songs, traditional ’30s and ’40s folk and blues tracks, surprise special guests and at least eight artists on stage at any one time we were treated to a raucous affair of strings and banjos, “Alabama High Test” and other drug smuggling tales, woes of the married man in “Minglewood Blues” and none other than Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on mandolin, fiddle and guitar throughout. Interspersed with banter dripping in the Southern timbre of a rodeo commentator, Secor managing somehow to whisk us away to the dirt-tracks of Tennessee leading us to believe for the duration of their barnstorming set at least, that Limehouse, east of Whitechapel, could easily have been a mid-West location.
Crowd interaction was high, though in places of poignancy it tended to drown out the appalachian refrain of Welch, Rawlings, Secor and Watson on “Don’t Leave Nobody but the Baby”, with claps of encouragement. Overly crowded to match the venue the stage comradery was multiplied towards the close, by the addition of Mumford and Sons (whom OCMS are supporting in Europe), for a collaborative rendition of the Dylan chorus/Secor verse penned classic “Wagon Wheel”. Any kind of jadedness ticketholders may have had regarding the pop-folk guests was most unfounded as the Mumford’s proved themselves worthy of a stage with these roots greats even though this may be reversed on foreign soils next month.
Modern classics and traditional jiggs revisted with their contemporary twists marked Welch, Rawlings, Old Crow and their cohorts as some kind of modern incarnation of The Band – something perfectly fitting as the exceptional night closed with a rendition of “The Weight”.
I Hear Them All:
[audio:http://www.box.net/shared/static/ub2g1jzj1s.mp3|titles=I Hear Them All|Artists=Dave Rawlings Machine]
[audio:http://www.box.net/shared/static/fdg7f7d32q.mp3|titles=The Weight|Artists=Gillian Welch and OlCMS]
photos by Michael Farrant, All rights reserved