We talked to Bonnaroo's organizers just ahead of the festival about the legacy acts they book ? folks who've been playing music for decades, whose creations built the very ground upon which Bonnaroo stands.
Co-producer Rick Farman figured they were offering "an opportunity to check . . . legends off your list."
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's legendary status is about impossible to argue against ? in introducing them to That Tent's stage Friday, Nashville talent Jim Lauderdale praised them for making a record "that personally changed my life, and changed the face of Americana and roots music."
Said record: Will the Circle be Unbroken, a collaboration with legends that one expects will always remain legendary itself. They've been at it a long time, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and have the rare distinction of being makers of musical history and still busy creators, collecting new experiences.
"Our band's played pretty much every kind of circumstance," singer Jeff Hanna said early into their set, allowing that this was indeed the first time, however, that they'd done Bonnaroo.
Their music is well-suited to the Bonnaroo audience, which has
traditionally been appreciative of musics derived from American roots
and played by practiced, skilled practitioners. The Dirt Band had a
relatively modest tent crowd ? at least in comparison to, say, the
bursting one that amassed for Edward Sharpe earlier in the day. But that
crowd fittingly spanned decades, toddlers to folks who came up with the
Dirt Band in the late '60s bending knees to the beat, clapping along.
The band opened with Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," and later moved into a fluid, expressive "Dance Little Jean."
"How 'bout the pickin' from those guys, eh?" Hanna asked as that song wrapped ? and fair enough, the playing was exemplary. But a key thing, too: The playing was human. A false start led into "Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble To Me," from 2009's Speed of Life, and the smiles and laughs and gestures that followed were fun, and real ? something that can sometimes get muted in all the big-show hoo-ha.
Hanna started an introduction to "Return to Dismal Swamp," calling multi-instrumentalist John McEuen one of the "baddest five-string banjo players you will ever hear." McEuen backed up the claim admirably, with fleet-fingered work that riled the crowd.
"We've been playing together since the late '60s," Hanna said later, before launching into "Mr. Bojangles" ? one of the set's most fervent singalongs. "And we're not tired yet."
Yup. We noticed.