It was a deeply satisfying journey through 50 years or so of music when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band officially made its Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall debut Monday evening. From bluegrass to country to pop and back again, the musicians onstage (two of whom live in the area; read our interview with them here ) demonstrated for an enthusiastic crowd obviously familiar with their hits their versatile talents and the easygoing nature of their stage personas.
Introduced by Sarasotan Dickie Smothers (whose The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour also debuted five decades ago), the band launched right into Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” with Jeff Hanna taking the early lead vocal (followed by keyboardist Bob Carpenter) and John McEuen ripping into the fiddle part. Hanna took the lead, too, in addressing the crowd throughout much of the evening, whether it was to introduce a number, share a reminiscence of some of the musicians the band has worked with over the years (Willie Nelson, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, the list goes on and on) or make a self-deprecating joke; but that didn’t mean that each band member didn’t get a chance to take center stage.
And the hits were there for the fans, from “Dance, Little Jean,” about a little girl dancing at her parents’ wedding, to “Buy For Me the Rain” to a song of more recent vintage (2009), “Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble to Me,” which allowed harmonica player Jimmie Fadden (who also plays the drums) to go to town and McEuen to bring out the banjo. The musical moods onstage could change swiftly from a fun tune like that to the more soulful “Stand A Little Rain,” delivered by Carpenter, to a pure bluegrass number like “My Walking Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore.”
McEuen stepped forward to joke, “I got in free…and I get to drive home from work” before performing a banjo instrumental (“Return to Dismal Swamp”) he dedicated to his brother, who, he jokes, once told him, “You know, if the banjo was any good, the Beatles would have used it.” Another reference to the Beatles led into a bluegrass rendition of “Get Back” later in the show.
Fadden sang lead on the pure country “Honky Tonkin’” by Hank Williams, and the Fadden-written song “Workin’ Man (Nowhere To Go”),” sung by Hanna, hit a poignant note, as did the immensely popular “Mr. Bojangles,” the Jerry Jeff Walker song that was a major hit for the band in the late 1960s. The audience, of course, was invited to join in on that song’s final chorus.
The band didn’t disappoint with performances of their other hits, either, like “Fishin’ in the Dark” (co-written by Jim Photoglo, who joined the four NGDB members onstage for the evening), “Ripplin’ Waters” (which turned into an extended jam and featured some beautiful keys work by Carpenter), or a Jeff Hanna song that was a big hit, not for the band, but for Rascal Flatts (winning a Grammy for songwriting for Hanna anyway), the touching “Bless the Broken Road.” And towards the end of the concert it was time for a trip to Louisiana, with “Bayou Jubilee” and Williams’ “Jambalaya,” before returning to the stage for an encore of the iconic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and the Band’s “The Weight.”
Throughout it all, the concert was a chance to admire once again the enduring gifts of the musicians, from Fadden’s inimitable harmonica skills to McEuen’s mult-instrumental abilities to Hanna’s guitar work to Carpenter’s touch on the keys. After a long-delayed Sarasota premiere, here’s hoping the band returns soon.