Long before Top 40 bands like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers entered the scene, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Avett Brothers had pitched flags in two very different precincts of the folk-roots landscape.
Thursday night, the Avetts and Old Crow shared a bill at Starlight Theatre, drawing a crowd of nearly 5,000 and showcasing two styles of acoustic music that meshed despite their differences.
Old Crow opened with a set of songs steeped in old-time country and bluegrass. The Virginia band is led by the kinetic Ketch Secor, who kept the mood on stage roiling throughout the lively 70-minute set.
They opened with “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” from “Remedy,” the band’s latest album. It’s a typical Old Crow song: a jaunty banjo-driven country-blues tune embroidered with blues harp and slide guitar and buttressed with the deep thump of a standup bass.
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From there they went back seven years to “Alabama High-Test,” a track from the “Tennessee Pusher” album. It’s a bluegrass romp that resembles Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and it prompted lots of dancing in a crowd that spanned a few generations, including a large number of late teens. It was the first of several high-speed old-time country forays that showcased the band’s keen instrumental and vocal skills.
Speaking of Dylan, they performed both songs to which he wrote the lyrics: “Wagon Wheel,” now their signature song, which ignited the loudest singalong of the night, and “Sweet Amarillo.” They paid tribute to B.B. King with a nice cover of “CC Rider,” which included a dazzling whistling solo by Cory Younts. They closed with a cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” that sounded surprisingly fresh and inspired.
Few bands are suited to follow an Old Crow set, but the Avett Brothers succeeded. A quartet from North Carolina that tours as a seven-piece, the Avetts approach folk-country-roots from another tangent, drawing more from bands like The Band, the Jayhawks and Wilco, and they favor well-crafted ballads with introspective lyrics.
Most of the crowd made the adjustment from Old Crow’s boundless energy to the Avetts’ more grounded approach, though there were moments of vigor and flash, especially between cellist Joe Kwan and violinist Tania Elizabeth. And there were sweet melodies and sparkling harmonies throughout the set.
They opened with a couple of midtempo numbers: “Down With the Shine,” a sweet lament, then “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise.” The mood shifted dramatically during “I Killed Sally’s Lover,” a whirlwind, screaming country-blues song that would have fit perfectly in a Old Crow’s set.
About halfway through, the show was delayed for more than 20 minutes because lightning was flashing. That was reason for some people to go home but most stayed and got a second half that was better than the first.
The wistful ballad “Morning Song” was a highlight. So was the ramshackle “Talk on Indolence” and the uber-poppy “Figure of Speech,” though it would have been better without the drum solo. They closed with another forlorn ballad, “I and Love and You,” which prompted some couples to embrace and sway as they sang along.
Scott Avett returned for a solo-acoustic version of “Murder in the City.” Then, after he thanked the crowd for enduring the inclement weather, the full band returned for “Kick Drum Heart,” another invigorating pop tune about love. It shared none of the traits that Old Crow Medicine Show brought to the stage, yet it wrapped up the evening seamlessly.
Avett Brothers: Down with the Shine; Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise; Another Is Waiting; Distraction No. 74; Will You Return; Laundry Room; I Killed Sally’s Lover; Salina; Tania; Die Die Die; The Perfect Space; Vanity; Live and Die; Morning Song; Talk on Indolence; Slight Figure of Speech; I and Love and You. Encore: Murder in the City; Kick Drum Heart.
Old Crow Medicine Show: Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer; Alabama High-Test; Take ‘Em Away; Bootlegger’s Boy; Brave Boys; CC Rider; Sweet Amarillo; Humdinger; Carry Me Back to Virginia; Raise a Ruckus; Tell It To Me; Wagon Wheel; Eight Dogs Eight Banjos; American Girl.