Marrickville’s dim lit industrial fringe is even more dim this evening. It’s just gone past eighty-thirty and Earth Hour has plunged Sydney into darkness. With few streetlights on and the few homes scattered in the concrete clad factory streets lit by candles, the sky is a cloudy grey against an unseasonably warm March evening. The darkness, the grey slab buildings, the abandoned quiet, it’s not exactly the right atmosphere for an old-timey, bluegrass ho-down. But that’s okay. If I close my eyes I’m somewhere in the American south, in a button down blouse, outside a rundown bar and about to see Old Crow Medicine Show.
For the uninitiated, how best to describe OCMS? They make the kind of music you imagine old-school banjo slinging dudes from a different time and place playing at barn dances and porch sing-a-longs. It’s a raw, authentic, down home sound. Fiddle, blues harp, flat-picked guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonies so sweet and sad and uplifting it is easy to forget you’re in an industrial wasteland in Sydney’s inner-west.
More than ten years since the band were discovered busking on the streets of North Carolina, the group are back in Australia for the second time in just under year, having finally started to build a dedicated fan base Down Under. And dedicated they are. The audience is diverse, young and old, fresh faced and haggard, all keen to catch some Old Crow magic. Check-shirted alt-country city boys blend with genuine country folk who’ve travelled up from regional Victoria just to see the show. There are girls in cowboy boots, men in dungarees and women old enough to be my mother screaming like teenagers as band leader Ketch Secor swaggers onto the stage and greets us in his butter-wouldn’t-melt southern drawl.
For just over two hours (with an interval midway from which they all return looking suitably wired) the Old Crow boys take us to the heart of the American south and we hoot and holler accordingly. The band have been to charm school and work their way through an eclectic set list of party tunes and heartbreakers with ease. ‘Down Home Girl’, ‘I Hear Them All’ and ‘Caroline’ stir the crowd into polite sing-a-longs before ‘Cocaine’ and ‘Wagon Wheel’ sway us into a rousing chorus ready for more. When the show comes to its inevitable close, the crowd stumbles out into the Marrickville night and heads where all nights of this kind inevitably end, Newtown’s Town Hall Hotel. Every single one of us wishes we were drinking whiskey out back of the Factory with the band. But in the absence of the band, we fondle our beers and reminisce and already start to talk about when we’ll get to see them again.