Before their collapse, the Ritz was part of HMV’s attempt to diversify their business. Thousands were spent refurbishing the venue, including its ‘springy’ dancefloor, in order for it to compete with newer venues in the city.
But what the redevelopment did, like the various other venues linked to corporate and commercial entities, was taint its background and colourful history. Opening in the 1930s as a premier dancehall, the Ritz became known as “The Hall of a Thousand Delights”, was at the centre of the Manchester’s own beat group movement in the 1960s and played host to The Beatles, before coming to prominence again in the 1970s for its Northern Soul nights and in 1980s by hosting The Smiths and The Stone Roses. Oh, and it was infamous for holding ‘grab-a-granny’ nights.
Tonight, it hosts Old Crow Medicine Show who, along with the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, are held by many as being influential in opening up the world of bluegrass music in the early 2000s. One band who cite them particularly are Mumford And Sons, with both touring together in 2011 and starring in the documentary Big Easy Express.
However, for a number of bluegrass purists, this has left them rather disgruntled, with a number now labeling OCMS as being inspired by the success of Mumford And Sons instead of the other way round: commercial success ahead of its traditional roots and fanbase.
This seemed somewhat clear from the outset with the crowd assembled: a mix of those typically wearing Johnny Cash t-shirts, to those wearing Superdry track-suit tops. Indeed, you don’t expect glammed up Liverpudlian lasses at a bluegrass gig, especially those who ask to look through your bag for no apparent reason.
The commercial element became clearer through the support act, Johnnyswim, who seemed straight out of American Idol: hugely photogenic boy/girl duo, covering Dolly Parton’s Jolene and Johnny Cash’s Jackson. They claimed to have met in a church, talked about Nashville’s Bible Belt and got into gooey banter about their first date. It seemed too good to be true, but the crowd lapped it up.
OCMS begin with tracks from their most recent albums, with Carry Me Back To Virginia, Alabama High-Test and Caroline all producing enthusiastic foot-stomping, with singer Ketch Secor engaging the crowd with his presence and banter: an engaging and charismatic presence, who enters into banter about “scallies” and talks about playing in a larger venue away from the “colleges” down Oxford Road: “It’s nice to be downtown”.
Nevertheless, one song follows another, with them all sound almost precisely the same with little variation – crowd-pleasers and foot-stompers indeed, particularly their rendition of Mississippi Saturday Night – but what arguably made OCMS, particularly with their earlier albums, was their variation and heart: no slower-tempo songs were evident such as Trials & Troubles and We’re All In This Together, while in the case of Take ‘Em Away, a deeply emotional song about the plight of a farmer, this was made more up-tempo and acceptable to a larger crowd.
Indeed, it’s like OCMS are, at times, trying too hard to satisfy the crowd, with a fiddling duel between Secor and Chance McCoy and much discussion about Manchester’s past, with talk of cotton picked in Mississippi once going to Manchester’s cotton mills, all producing positive responses. Nevertheless, when drunk mates in designer tops are square-dancing, you wonder whether this is done out of love or an opportunity to be seen as ‘ironic’.
It isn’t until much later in the set that OCMS try and change things slightly, with CC Rider, a wonderful cover of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land and Cocaine Habit pleasing the die-hard OCMS fans. However, what is telling is that Wagon Wheel – OCMS’ calling card – yielded a weaker response than songs earlier in the set. This perhaps explains not only the nature of the band, but the composition of its audience, hungry for Mumford & Sons type ‘bluegrass’ pop and exaggerated examples of Americana. Indeed, the encore, featuring a cover of The Smiths’ Panic, again suggests OCMS are trying too hard to please a new crowd.
There is a risk for OCMS here. Their performance and musicianship can’t be faulted, but there’s a danger that their roots are being forgotten through their pursuit for a wider audience. Secor regularly alluded to the band’s busking days, but these will mean nothing for the many people here this evening. They’re treading a rather fine line – there’s no need for them to try and compete with Mumford And Sons. They’re miles better anyway.