When last we were visited by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, McCain Auditorium was new and K-State’s basketball teams still played games in Ahearn Field House.
That was in the early 1970s. But Jeff Hanna remembered. The guitar-playing singer acted as on-stage spokesman for the group during its performance in McCain last Sunday night.
He remembered. And so did some of us graybeards. The most recent show only served to refresh those memories because really, the Dirt Band hasn’t changed all that much in 47 years.
Oh, there’s no banjo to mix into the band’s sound. John McEuen, the banjo player, apparently comes and goes from the band’s line-up. The group we heard featured Hanna, drummer and harmonica specialist Jimmie Fadden (the other surviving founder), longtime keyboard player Bob Carpenter, bassist and songwriter Jim Photoglo, and two younger cats, Hanna’s guitar-playing son Jamie and Texan Ross Holmes, who played fiddle and mandolin.
Given that instrumentation, what is NGDB? A rock band? A country band?
Fadden’s insistence on bass drum quarter-notes probably makes them a folk band. Indeed, they played their original folky single, “Buy For Me the Rain.” Oddly, though, Hanna noted that they had lost track of that number for years, and their current version of it lacked the second vocal line and the slightly eerie air it got from violins added to the original recording.
But from the playing of that tune on the performance was older-fashioned country. Their hit “Fishing in the Dark” pleased the large McCain crowd. And the band did play Hank Sr. songs early and late, and did work in “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the title number for a series of shared recordings they’ve done of traditional American music.
But then there were the bits of blues or electric soloing. Late in the 100-minute show, the band went off into an extended version of “Rippling Waters,” including solos by everyone and some duet work. There was some rock guitar on this, late, played on J. Hanna’s sunburst Les Paul.
Then everyone left the stage but Jeff and Carpenter. They started up “Bless the Broken Road,” a song Rascal Flats has covered, and were soon joined by Fadden. Some bluesy train sounds followed.
And then all six group members were back on stage for “Fishing in the Dark,” which got a choreographed performance, “American Dream,” Cajun piece “Bayou Jubilee” (with the pinky plink from “The Auctioneer’s Song”) and “Jambalaya.”
They had already played “Mr. Bojangles,” a crowd favorite. And without a banjo they weren’t going to do Michael Nesmith’s “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” another of their early singles.
For the encore, the old band members took turns singing verses of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” which morphed oddly into “The Weight.” By that time one sensed the lyrics were more important to them as opportunities for sound rather than as expressions of meaning.
The solos were competent and professional. Fadden’s drum style is one-of-a-kind, and he gets surprising results using a harmonica rack. Carpenter played the accordion as well as electric pianos and organs.
And the band kept the show from being all one thing by trying different arrangements and different instrumentations. Jeff Hanna did Chuck Berry’s duck walk at one point. In picking material, though, they stayed within their purview, beginning the show with Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” following it with “Cosmic Cowboy” (with invited audience participation), and going on to a Rodney Crowell song.
So, banjo poverty aside, the show had pretty much the same effect as Nitty Gritty Dirt Band ones have always had. A little eclectic. A little electric. The sounds of home and the radio updated tastefully.
See? Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, playing in Manhattan, was just like we remembered.