The Big Surprise Tour, Boston
On the night Paul McCartney was playing right across the street at Fenway Park, my wife and I instead took a left turn on Lansdowne Street, away from nostalgia and ended up in a rollicking, ramshackle hoedown called the Big Surprise Tour. OK, it wasn’t a total surprise, I had bought tix months before when I heard Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings were going to be joined by Old Crow Medicine Show, the Felice Brothers and Justin Townes Earle in a seemingly free-for-all night of music.
First, an aside about the House of Blues: There are very few big venues in Boston that are able to feel like a club. For the most part, HOB works. The sound is terrific. It is a big place, packs a lot of people, but never seems overcrowded to the point that you can’t move, and the sightlines, from just about anywhere are pretty good. I do wish the tall dudes would step to the back, and the beer, at $6, for a can of Bud, is way overpriced.
But I digress.
The show was amazing. The Felice Brothers, with help from various members of the Crow, started things off with the tour’s signature song, “The Big Surprise.” They then gave way to Justin Townes Earle, who played a few numbers and then brought out members of the Felice Brothers to help him with a gospel number to finish up.
By now we got the concept of the show. Each act would play a 20-30-minute set in which time various members of the other groups would come out and join them.
The Felice Brothers, who I had never heard before live (I had just listened to their latest album “Yonder Is the Clock”), proceeded to throw down some indie-rock/country/punk led by the diminutive, Dylan-esque growling Ian Felice. “Run Chicken Run” was a standout. Accordion/keyboard player James Felice deserves a shoutout as well.
After a short intermission, out came Gillian and Dave, playing as the David Rawlings Machine, which meant that Gill would play the role of harmonizer to Dave’s lead. The two are mesmerizing no matter who is in charge. I have to say I came to see them first and foremost and was not disappointed. For Gillheads like myself, the setlist included: “I Hear Them All/This Land Is Your Land,” “Sweet Tooth,” “Monkey and the Engineer,” “The Bells of Harlem,” “Ruby,” “Method Acting/Cortez the Killer,” and a really great rendition of “Queen Jane Aproximately.” Also, keyboardist extraordinaire Benmont Tench joined them for a couple of tunes and then stayed the rest of the night. I have to say I was much more impressed with him than I have ever been. I knew him as one of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, but never thought he added tremendously to their sound. But he really shined in this show.
It was really a credit to the HOB that the sound mix was so good you could hear every instrument — and many times there were a ton of them onstage. I didn’t count, but there must have been 20 people on stage in the latter parts of the show.
After Dave and Gill, Old Crow bounded out and blew the crowd away. I have to say, I’m only a real casual fan. But they have a ton of energy and really brought the house down. While fiddle player/lead singer Ketch Secor gets a lot of the glory, I give props to guitarist Willie Watson, who’s mop-topped head moved only slightly less than his gangly legs. They also have that country/punk thing going on and do it well. They wowed the crowd with their party tunes, including new ones “Alabama High-Test” and “Humdinger.”
The number of musicians onstage kept growing with members of the Felice Brothers and Justin Townes Earle and Gill and Dave jumping on and off stage to help with songs. When they finally broke out “Wagon Wheel,” their hit, everyone was onstage and the crowd went bananas. Dave had picked up an electric guitar, Gill was working the tambourine (It must have been tough for her with all that boy energy flowing around her), there were washboards, banjos, mandolins, a pedal steel and multiple keyboards. Surprisingly, the sound, though chaotic, was amazing.
For the encore, everyone came back out, this time Gillian on electric guitar (!) and they romped through “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock and Roll),” which was a blast. We left totally spent and a little stiff from standing for 3 1/2 hours, but it was so worth it.