The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
at the Birchmere,
Alexandria, VA (18 March 2012)

On March 18, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band returned to the Birchmere, the East Coast's premier listening club and a place they love to play. Nathan and Jonathan McEuen, band member John McEuen's sons, opened the show and really got the house involved, playing straight-ahead country, folk, bluegrass-oriented tunes and some really rocking instrumentals. Their dad came out and played a couple of songs with them. The Dirt Band gave the McEuens a generous amount of time and Nathan and Jonathan made the best of it.

Then the Dirt Band wandered onto the stage before being introduced. The sold-out house cheered through their introduction, keeping up the cheers as the band opened with Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere." Then for the next couple of hours, they ran through their repertoire, playing songs from all of the stages of their career, from the rock stuff in the '70s, through the bluegrass and country years in the '80s and on up into the current Americana material. For a bunch of guys who have been doing this on the road for 46 years, they were energetic, completely into the music and happy to be on stage working their particular magic on the crowd.

The secret of the Dirt Band's longevity was easily apparent; these guys, after all these years, are still in it for the music. This is a band that loves to make music with each other and their enthusiasm is catching; the audience was having as good a time as they were.

Highlights of the night: Bob Carpenter, the keyboardist, did a great solo job with "Along the Broken Road," which lead signer and guitarist Jeff Hanna wrote and which become a big hit for Rascal Flats; Hanna said that nowadays people are always telling the bad that they do a great job on that Rascal Flats number. That started the solo portion of the show, where each band member got stage time by himself. John McEuen did a monologue about a fiddle contest, accompanying himself on first the fiddle and then switching to the banjo. Then drummer and harmonica player Jimmie Fadden did an extended harp solo with a blues vocal. A full band highlight was "Ripplin' Waters," which became an extended jam, with band members trading solos for a good 10 minutes.

The Dirt Band was at home and relaxed. McEuen mentioned that their relationship with the Birchmere goes back to before this particular club was built, back to when Gary, the owner, operated out of a far smaller -- and, shall we say, more rustic -- bar in the same neighborhood. They've played the club many times, so the night took on, as their appearances here always do, the atmosphere of a group of people having a great time making music on their back porch for their neighbors. The intimate mood the Birchmere creates contributed to that feeling. Good humor ruled; the band members joked with each other -- when John McEuen mentioned that he and Jeff Hanna had married twins, Hanna remarked, "I married the girl." They also referred to Jimmie Fadden as being "between divorces."

The band closed with a Cajun medley: "Bayou Jubilee," followed by "Sally Goodun" and wrapping it up with a killer version of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya." For the encore, they brought Nathan and Jonathan McEuen back on stage to play a strong rendition of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" mashed up with the Band's song, "The Weight." Again, the guys traded solos, with the Dirt Band generously giving their offspring -- the McEuen brothers are not just John McEuen's sons, they are Jeff Hanna's nephews. While they were all jamming together, proud father McEuen borrowed a camera from an audience member to take snapshots of his sons playing with the full band. When the evening ended -- 3 1/2 hours after it began -- the audience as tired as the band must have been, but was also as pumped up.

It's a long shot but here's hoping for another 46 years.

by Michael Scott Cain
7 April 2012