Dancing in the Dirt: The NGDB brings their 50th Anniversary Tour to Charlottesville
When a band reaches tenure of thirty years or more, their existence raises questions. Who in the band is left from the old days? Are they still vital, or are they mailing it in? Can they still sing for goodness sake? Few bands reach the golden anniversary, fifty. Sunday night The Nitty Gritty Band answered the questions no one was asking. At fifty they have passed from their auspicious debut, a bunch of California surfer dudes with a penchant for jug band music, to their current status as revered pioneers of the country rock movement. For you youngsters, country rock was Americana before someone thought up the fancy moniker.
The boys kicked the night off with a rollicking version of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” It was immediately evident that they were in good spirits and the audience was in good hands. What followed was a twenty-song set that spanned a career most artists would kill to have. The set list represented the different facets of their history, from folk rock to bluegrass, country, and radio friendly soft rock, while always underscoring their acoustic roots. The depth of the back catalog displayed both the band’s excellent songwriting chops and their uncanny judgment selecting works by outside writers.
“Dance Little Jean” was followed by their 1967 hit single, “Buy for Me The Rain.” The band gave themselves fully to the classic and made the song fresh again, the audience repaying them with a generous show of appreciation. There was plenty of humorous banter between songs and references to the many marriages of the band members. Pointing at Jimmie Fadden, Jeff Hanna joked, “He’s between divorces right now.” Hanna later cracked wise about the fact that he and McEuen were, for a time, brothers-in-law. McEuen responded, “We married a set of twins. I told the girls it was up to them to tell themselves apart.”
Each member of the group got their turn in the spotlight several times. Fadden and McEuen left the stage while Hanna and Carpenter performed “Bless the Broken Road.” Fadden took lead vocal duties on “Working’ Man (Nowhere to Go).” He also performed solo, his harmonica chugging along emulating a steam engine train.
It was McEuen who made the most of his time in the spotlight. He took the band through “The Great Dismal Swamp” and later seized a solo turn for a couple of numbers. McEuen’s three-finger picking style on “Brooklyn Crossing” was gorgeous. The track, from McEuen’s new solo release Made in Brooklyn, was well-received.
At this point the audience got a real dose of McEuen’s skewed sense of humor as he teased tidbits of a tune while spinning a bizarre yarn about being asked to play a funeral. The surreal story involved the voice actress who supplied the vocals for Minnie Mouse asking McEuen to play a set at her husband’s funeral. Her husband, Wayne Allwine had been, for a time, the voice of Mickey Mouse. McEuen led the audience through a chorus of the theme, relating that, at the line, “See you real soon,” the casket went into the ground. The story, and McEuen’s deadpan delivery brought down the house.
All of the classics were there on Sunday night. “Fishin’ in the Dark,” “Bayou Jubilee,” and, of course, “Mr. Bojangles.” Perhaps one of the best moments was a beautiful rendition of “Ripplin’ Waters” which featured McEuen’s stellar mandolin picking and an evocative piano solo from Bob Carpenter.
Throughout the evening Hanna was the jovial emcee and his voice sounded as good as ever. The band was ably supported by Jim Photoglo on bass and backing vocal. Photoglo is an excellent songwriter in his own right and is the co-writer on “Fishin’ in the Dark.”
Stepping out into the night air, one was left with a sense of gratitude for the music the band has given us over the years, and for their artistic integrity. Their commitment to their craft is something any young artist would do well to emulate. Here’s to the next decade of Dirt, may we be so fortunate.