City Scoops Lifestyle Magazine reviews NGDB show!
By Gwen Orel
?Are they still around??
That was the response I got from at least three people when I told them I was seeing Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It was always said with real enthusiasm and longing.
YES, they?re still around, and they?ve just released Speed of Life, their first CD in five years? and it?s very very good. You can come to it fresh, without knowing any of their hit songs from the 60s and later, or you can come to it with appreciation for how the so-called ?jug band? (pop bluegrass, more like) has continued to grow in musicality and strength. The core group of Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen are together again (there has been some mobility over the years, and originally, Jackson Browne was in the band) and sound great.
A lot of tribute bands play at B.B. King?s, but despite a few cracks about the past from multi-musicianist John MCEuen, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band honored the past without living in it. So they?ve been around since 1966 and have hugely influenced younger commercial bluegrass pop rock players? who cares about that when watching McEuen go from fiddle to banjo to dobro, or Jimmie Fadden play drums and harmonica at once? Jeff Hanna?s singing is as strong as ever, and his low-key, friendly vibe to the audience has real warmth and Bob Carpenter?s keyboards decorate and fill out the music. Sure, bearded McEuen has a kind of hippie look if you squint? although he kind of reminded me of one of my grad school profs in the theatre department (I know, same difference).
The crowd at B.B. King?s included a lot of Boomers and middle-aged types but also had a fair amount of younger folk, including two tables of shrieking what-sounded-like sorority girls and their boy toys, who shouted out requests, sang out of key, and in a truly surreal moment yelled ?he?s sitting on my tits? in the middle of ?Will the Circle Be Unbroken.?
But here?s the thing. Their tight harmonies, strong musicianship, and kind of laidback version of sizzle feels really good right now. Soothing, yet challenging and provoking too. The new CD is full of strong songs, a few of which they played tonight.
Jeff Hanna does most of the talking, and he was confident, relaxed and sure (later I asked him who the screaming folks were and he hadn?t heard them, saying he wears earplugs in his ears. That explains the zen above-it-all posture I guess!). One of the first songs they did was ?The Resurrection,? from the new CD. It?s a song about a town struggling to survive, but its refrain ?dreams die hard around here,? particularly when combined with Fadden?s harmonica, sounds just a little Springsteen-esque to this Jersey girl (and that?s a good thing).
I appreciated that they played, as Hanna put it, ?songs from the catalogue? as well as newer songs. Overall, the non-hit songs from the catalogue pleased me the most and seemed to showcase their chops the best. ?Dance Little Jean,? a hit in 1983, is a little sentimental in a country vein, but McEuen?s banjo on a number Hanna says they learned from ?a little rootsy band called the Grateful Dead,? also originally a jug band, ?Some Dark Hollar,? had a nice bite. On the new CD is a great track called ?Jimmy Martin,? but instead of that, the band played a cut from their first ?Will the Circle Be Unbroken? album, recorded in 1971- a song that ?bluegrass king? Jimmy Martin loved, McEuen explained, called ?My Walkin? Shoes.? His picking on this track was really outstanding. I love that this band never belts as the number gets more exciting? the close harmonies and relaxed delivery don?t take away from the excitement but contain it. This number was a real knockout. The ?Will the Circle Be Unbroken? albums brought together the best of bluegrass and old-timey musicians, including Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Mother Maybelle Carter. It was recorded in Nashville, and they credit it as the song that got them out of Long Beach, California? funny to think of California as a place that grew these musicians, but hey, banjo virtuoso Alison Brown (founder and co-president of Compass Records) also grew up in California, though originally from Connecticut. You don?t have to be a front-porch picker to play.
NGDB?s version of the Beatles? ?Get Back? was a nice punchline to the banjo jokes the band was throwing around. The title song to the new CD, ?The Speed of Life,? written by Gary Scruggs (Earl?s son), expresses a wistful quality about looking at life as it hurtles by. Carpenter?s keyboards sounded particularly nice on this track. Fadden?s hit 1987 song ?Workin? Man (Nowhere to Go)? was greeted with more shrieks. A few weeks ago I wrote about Andy Irvine?s tribute to Woody Guthrie, ?Never Tire of the Road.? Fadden alludes to him too, with lyrics that say he?s ?Singing a song about Woody Guthrie? this land is your land, it ain?t my land? I?m a working man, nowhere to go.? I know it was the Reagan era, but that?s a bit dark for Woody. Song is tuneful though.
?Mr. Bojangles,? which Hanna described as ?the tune that got us out of Long Beach? our band started in ?66, 1866,? sounded really great (this was a real Dorian Gray moment for Hanna, where I just looked at him going really? you were singing this forty years ago? Huh). Jeff Hanna?s ?Bless the Broeken Road,? a love song recorded by Rascal Flats, was performed with just Bob Carpenter singing, Fadden on harmonica and Hanna on guitar. The simplicity of this arrangement of a song about finding love at last really sent home the song?s beauty and power.
McEuen then returned and riffed, alone on stage, making banjo jokes. Speaking of banjo, in East Durham, up in the Catskills, this weekend (Oct. 9-12) it?s Banjo Burke Festival? a weekend of Irish music, workshops and concerts honoring the late Joe ?Banjo? Burke. Check it out. Also speaking of banjo and fiddle, I?d love to see McEuen (now resident in New York) join at one of the NY Irish sessions. He?s played with Mary Black, so maybe it?s not out of the question?he was telling me after the concert how Irish musicians don?t jam, they play the same tune (but they vary the ornaments, I said). of course, these days, lots and lots of Irish trad musicians play old-timey and bluegrass too.
But I digress. His solo was a familiar song in fact?he got the crowd to shout the words of the Beverly Hillbillys (the song is ?The Ballad of Jed Clampett,? if you want to be all technical about it). ?You don?t know the words to the National anthem, but you know that,? he said. True. I remember singing the Gilligan?s Island themesong around the campfire. These are American folksongs, after all. The transition to the hit ?Fishing in the Dark? was clever: it went from Fadden?s solo harmonica train number, to Hanna joining in, before becoming the 1987 pop song about seeing Jamaica in a neon sign. Enthusiastic shrieks were heard again. While it?s a nice song, I think I may have heard it once too many times in waiting rooms to appreciate it now, and at this point Hanna?s egging on the crowd to clap began to tilt into the cheesy.
But all came right again with their final number ?Bayou Jubilee,? with McEuen wailing on the fiddle, and their encore, consisting of ?Will the Circle Be Unbroken? interrupted by the Band?s ?The Weight? and concluding with the old gospel hymn again, was outstanding.
NGDB really straddle the line between pop music and bluegrass and maybe fans in both worlds don?t get them enough. That?s a mistake. They?ve come back around. If you missed them before, don?t miss them now. John McEuen is playing City Winery on Nov. 16th? he?s a New Yorker now.