MORRISON, Colo. — If the twin, 300-feet tall monoliths that rise from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains 15 miles west of Denver at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre could sing, they most likely would sound like the Jimmy Ibbotson-Jeff Hanna harmony blend on a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band classic like “Ripplin’ Waters” or “Some of Shelly’s Blues.” There’s something about Ibbotson’s sincere twang combined with Hanna’s country-edge tenor that captures the laid-back, free spirit that echoes in the Colorado mountains.
Red Rocks rang with joy Saturday night (July 14) for a nearly sold-out crowd of 8,500, ranging in age from 20 to 60, at the fourth stop on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Reunion Tour that will take the veteran group through the West, Midwest and Canada during July and October.
It was a homecoming on several levels for the band, who shared Saturday’s bill with Willie Nelson. The tour marks the first time in 15 years that multi-instrumentalist John McEuen has performed with the Dirt Band, whose current members include Ibbotson, Hanna, Jimmie Fadden and Bob Carpenter. It was a family reunion with wives, children and grandchildren gathered backstage. The Dirt Band relocated from California to Aspen, Colo., in the early ’80s and raised their families here. It was a reunion for Colorado fans who still proudly claim “Nitty Gritty” as their own. It was also a recap of 35 years of some pretty amazing music, a musical mix McEuen describes as “some eclectic, some hits, some things I just look forward to [playing].”
McEuen credits the fans, along with long-time manager Chuck Morris, with the idea for the reunion tour. “It’s all about the music, and re-capturing what we did, and what we can do,” he says. With some 30 Dirt Band albums to draw from, McEuen says the biggest challenge has been deciding which songs to leave out of the show.
The Dirt Band began in 1966 as a jug band that hung out at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Calif., and played the Southern California folk-rock scene dressed in 1920s pinstripe suits. Their credits include the million-selling, very influential 1972 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a multi-generational gathering that paired the band with country icons such as Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff and Merle Travis. The band’s other signature recording is the American pop classic, “Mr. Bojangles.”
They appeared on national television, toured Russia and Japan, won three Country Music Association awards for the second volume of the Circle album and appeared on the pop charts with Linda Ronstadt on “American Dream” and with the late Nicolette Larson on “Make a Little Magic.” On the country charts, the Dirt Band scored with “Dance Little Jean,” “Long Hard Road” and “Fishin’ in the Dark,” among others.
The band members are enjoying the enthusiastic reception and emotional momentum of the reunion shows. “It just keeps getting better every night,” lead singer/guitarist Hanna says. “The Dirt Band is still alive and kicking. … We seem to have some kind of ‘nine lives’ thing going here, and we’re grateful for it. And it’s great to be able to revisit the music that we made with John. I consider this to be the classic lineup of the Dirt Band.”
Ibottson concurs. “Oh, it’s the best,” he says. “You know, we were faking it for the past 15 years without Johnny.”
McEuen left the Dirt Band in 1986 for a number of reasons. He was going through a divorce, and the band had voted not to record any more instrumental music in an effort to fit in with radio trends. “It felt like the country music business was turning away from what we were doing, and we were turning towards where it was turning,” he explains. “It just didn’t seem right, [because] we have always done things on a risk level. Everything that worked in my 21 years with the Dirt Band was ‘wrong’– [like] recording “Mr. Bojangles,” a single that was four minutes long about a dead dog and a dancer.
“When things got predictable,” McEuen adds, “that’s when it stopped working.”
During the interim, McEuen has found success writing music for television and films and producing acoustic albums. He also has been involved with concert production and has toured solo and in unison with Ibbotson. His String Wizard CDs on the Vanguard label have met with critical acclaim, and he and “Ibby” have a DVD coming out later this year titled Nitty Gritty Surround (AIX Records) with Laurie Lewis, Jennifer Warnes and a number of top-flight California acoustic musicians.
As for future reunion plans, Hanna says, “Well, this is kind of a tryout for us. But I’d say based on how it’s going so far, we’ll be working some together next year.” A new recording with McEuen back in the mix might be a possibility, and there is talk of a Dirt Band box set with some new tracks available next year.
The near-capacity crowd at Red Rocks began cheering with the band’s first song and didn’t let up all night, repeatedly rising for standing ovations. Half the crowd was on their feet, free-style clog dancing during “Fishin’ in the Dark” and bluegrass standards like “Your Walking Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore” and “Earl’s Breakdown.” The crowd rose again, en masse, to sing the chorus of “Mr. Bojangles.” Fadden brought the house down with an extended harmonica solo that fired down the tracks and through the hills like a speeding locomotive.
Toward the end, McEuen charged to center stage, nearly inciting the crowd to riot with his white fiddle on “Bayou Jubilee.” Then the band segued into a high-energy, harmony-stacked version of “The Battle of New Orleans” while McEuen marched across the stage with his fiddle bow held at attention like a Confederate rifle. Ibbotson shouted, “The whole damn band!” after executing a perfect split leap through the air, and the group left the stage with another ovation.
The quintet encored with a Steve Goodman song from their Colorado Christmas album, which seemed oddly appropriate in the Rocky Mountain setting, despite the fact that it was July. The set ended with another singalong. Lead vocals were passed around from Ibbotson, to Hanna, to Carpenter, to Fadden on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and “Ibby” swayed from side to side in time with the crowd as the chorus echoed against the red walls. The circle was complete for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band once again. “We’ve tried [this band] with different versions throughout the years,” Ibbotson comments, “and we just realized that we need each other. We’re brothers, partners and friends.”