Bluegrass in Berlin — Not the Next Big Thing

If there’s any song that’ll get a crowd of American twenty-somethings riled up and singing along, it’s “Wagon Wheel.” Old Crow Medicine Show managed to take a form of music generally regarded as quaint and turn it into something massively popular, creating a hipster anthem with a fiddle, a six-string, a banjo, and a few creaky voices singing harmony. There are certainly bigger names out there in America these days, but not tons that are better-liked across a spectrum of urban-dwelling Americans.

Here in Germany, where aside from nameless techno tracks most popular music is American, I was surprised to get blank looks from hip young Germans when I mentioned Old Crow or “Wagon Wheel.” And so when I went to see the group in concert on Tuesday night, I was curious to see what kind of recognition it’d get from the crowd.

The show was sold out and jam-packed — that boded well. The opening act, a guy named Nathaniel something, was kind of a drag, and so there were plenty of cheers when Old Crow took the stage. They started off big, with Hard to Love, followed by Down Home Girl and I Hear Them All. Ketch Secor was his usual virtuosic self, tearing apart the horsehair and finding a home for himself on the top four holes of the harp. Willie Watson’s vocals were exceeded only by his grinning antics. A funereally slow CC Rider really hit the spot. They were firing on all cylinders, and yet…

Nothing from the crowd. Sure, some polite swaying and nodding, but nothing in the way of singing along. Incidentally, I’d sent the album O.C.M.S. to a German friend here, and she told me she had no idea what to make of it, since she’d never heard anything remotely like it before. Maybe we American city slickers, we who belittled country music throughout our childhoods, still have some old time string band sensibility in our blood that people on this side of the Atlantic lack.

Mumford and Sons just so happen to come from this side of the Atlantic. They were born of the alt-country tradition and have their share of banjo and accordion and upright. But whether it’s the British accents or the bigger sound or just the proximity, the Germans clearly know them and love them.

And I must say, for all the fun of the Old Crow set, things really did heat up when Mumford took the stage. After the giddy fiddlin’ of the Nashville boys, Mumford’s opening number, Sigh No More, was stark. And huge. Four men in a line across the front of the stage, staring out at the audience, singing in a booming, chilling four-part harmony. It was quite something.

The entire set was fantastic, actually. For all his claims that the group doesn’t have a frontman, Marcus Mumford totally steals the show. Nearly every song begins with a soft guitar line from him, followed by his vocals. As the other guys join in, he provides the sole percussion by stomping the pedal of a bass drum. When they deviate from this formula, it’s because Mumford has taken a seat at the drum set in the back, delivering his hoarse, powerful vocals as he pounds away at the drums. The music is full of tension and drama, with each song growing into something huge before stepping back for a quiet outro.

And the audience sang along with every word.

But one thing was still missing from the show, and that was Wagon Wheel. The true test was still before us. I had little doubt that there would be a huge finale with Old Crow and Mumford for the big WW. And so it went. The stage was packed with something like three guitars, two banjos, an upright, a fiddle, an accordion, and more — a rollicking rendition, just like I’m accustomed to. But in that, I think, I was alone. The crowd remained polite, quiet, and clueless, as I drew looks for singing along.

And then Old Crow cleared the stage, and Mumford and Sons did one last encore of their own. Once again, a roar of recognition from the audience, and a massive sing-along.

As I fall more deeply in love with Berlin, there is comfort in knowing that there are some things in America that are really, truly American, and that just can’t be replicated, or even tranported, abroad. Old Crow Medicine Show is one of them.

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