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The Lowdown:

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Bob Carpenter (keyboards/vocals), Jimmie Fadden (drums/harmonica/vocals), Jeff Hanna (vocals/guitar), John McEuen (banjo/mandolin/fiddle/lap steel/guitar)

Based In:
Southern California


Americana, country rock, folk rock, bluegrass


The Kent Stage, Kent, OH

Concert Date:
June 4, 2011

Opening Acts:


Related Articles:

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performs live at the Kent Stage

Rating: 9 out of 10



June 7, 2011


Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: The Kent Stage, June 4, 2011

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performs live at the Kent Stage: (l-r) Bob Carpenter, Jeff Hanna, John McEuen, Jimmie Fadden. Photo by Jason D. Hamad/No Surf Music


It’s great to see the masters at work, and while they may not be the biggest name in country rock, there’s no doubt that Nitty Gritty Dirt Band are masters. Started as a jug band in Long Beach, California in 1966 (with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne as a founding, though short-lived, member), NGDB soon electrified and became one of the first bands to fuse country and rock sounds. Its safe to say that without pioneers like them, none of the Americana and music that No Surf loves would be the same.

The band’s lineup has gone through more changes than a teenage girl getting ready for a date, but a four-person core remains. Guitarist Jeff Hanna and drummer Jimmie Fadden were present at the creation. Multi-instrumental master John McEuen joined later that year to replace the departed Browne. Keyboardist Bob Carpenter came on board in 1977 during a period when the group was known simply as the Dirt Band and has been with them ever since. In addition to their instrumental duties, Carpenter and Fadden both join in on vocals, though Hanna takes the lion’s share of the leads. There’s no doubt that McEuen is the shining star instrumentally, and it seems the man is a virtuoso on just about any stringed instrument, from banjo to fiddle to mandolin to lap steel, with a little guitar thrown in (not to mention jug bass in the old days). Just as impressive may be Jimmie Fadden’s trick of playing drums and harmonica simultaneously, even on songs in which he sings. Carpenter’s keyboards are sometimes easy to overlook beneath the fast-picking flash, but they are spot-on. And Jeff Hanna is certainly no slouch, keeping perfect rhythm and providing the band’s distinctly California-vibed vocals. Over their multi-decade careers they have gained a reputation as one of the tightest groups out there, and they display an impressive musical range.

The group pulled into Kent, Ohio for a show at the Kent Stage Saturday, June 4th. In a pre-show interview (Burning River Fireside Chat article coming soon), the band told me that they had played all over Ohio in their long career, but had never been to Kent. They were in for a treat. Kent is a town that loves its folk, not to mention folk rock. There are few better places in America to showcase a group like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band than the Kent Stage.

The inviting atmosphere at the Kent Stage means everyone gets a great seat. Photo by Jason D. Hamad/No Surf Music

The venue itself is an old single-screen movie theater, located in the heart of town on Main Street, where its classic marquee can be seen from the Cuyahoga River just down the hill. It is surrounded by a college town vibe, with Spin-More, a terrific record store, located just next door and tattoo parlors, bars, restaurants, hookah lounges and even a local food co-op filling out the surrounding streets. The theatre had fallen on hard times after a multiplex opened on the other side of town, but struggled on for several decades before finally shuttering. Several years ago, it was taken over by a group dedicated to making it into a top-notch musical venue, and they succeeded admirably. They knocked out the wall where the screen was located to make room for a stage, but left most of the rest of the theater in place. Red velvet lines the wall, and the seats are those classic red folding theatre chairs with cup holders on their plastic armrests, maybe a little worse for years of wear, but still comfortable. Because the Stage started its life as a movie theater, there’s not a bad seat in the house (except, ironically, in the front rows, where a motley assortment of uncomfortable flea-market chairs fill what had been the buffer between audience and screen… new seats are still on order). The acoustics are great for a place of its size, a mid-range venue somewhere between a club and a pavilion. I took an empty seat at the outer edge of row N and was perfectly happy with both the view and the sound.

I was among the youngest of the primary attendees. Although there were a number of 20- and 30-something faces in the crowd, it mostly consisted of middle-aged fans who had probably been listening to NGDB since long before I was born (Overheard: …and the opening act was James Taylor. Of course, no one knew who the hell he was back then and we couldn’t wait for him to get off stage…). But just as the band had suggested in our interview, many of the fans brought their children and grandchildren, introducing NGDB to yet another generation.

Local talent Tom Evanchuck started the night with a short but high-quality set of lively folk music. Photo by Jason D. Hamad/No Surf Music

The opening act was Chardon native Tom Evanchuck, playing his own brand of “footstompin’ and rumpshakin’” folk music and sporting something of a Ryan Bingham vibe. At only 22 years of age, he’s already making a name for himself locally, regionally, and beyond, releasing three albums last month alone (two EP’s and an LP, both solo and with his new band). He’s been playing since he was five and it shows. His short set was an entertaining, fast-picked clinic on what folk music should be, demonstrating both reverence for the tradition and a fair amount of his own style. He bantered with the crowd like an old pro, at one point smiling and saying “I’m getting too young for this.” One song, he noted, was written for folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and he actually had the opportunity to play it for him. Any 20-year-old who even knows who Ramblin’ Jack is is damn cool in my book. After the show he made sure to mention what an honor it was to open for legends like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which is another plus in his column. You can expect to see a full feature on him at No Surf in the near future.

After a brief intermission, the main act took the stage to the appreciative applause of the audience. They played a set of over 90-minutes that spanned their entire career, with a perfect balance both of covers and original material and of old favorites and songs from their latest release, 2009’s Speed of Life. The band has that perfect chemistry that only comes from playing together for a lifetime, and it shows both musically and in their stage presence. They may be a little heavy on divorce jokes, but it doesn’t get in the way of the music and the baby boomers in the crowd seemed to enjoy the banter.

The first highlight started off the set, a lively rendition of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” featuring John McEuen dancing across the stage as he played fiddle around bursts of electric guitar courtesy of Jeff Hanna. This was followed up by “Face on the Cutting Room Floor,” co-written by Tom Goodman, and then their 1983 hit “Dance Little Jean.”  

Next up came a trio from Speed of Life, “The Resurrection,” “Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble to Me,” and “Jimmy Martin,” the last of these marking a highlight of both the show and the album. It is told from the perspective of the bluegrass legend with whom NGDB had the undisputed honor of collaborating on their 1972 masterpiece Will The Circle Be Unbroken.

John McEuen plugs his 5-strin banjo as Jeff Hanna strums along. Photo by Jason D. Hamad/No Surf Music

The band then continued the bluegrass theme and highlighted McEuen’s prodigious talents on the five-string banjo. After completing the instrumental, he noted that his brother had once told him, “If the banjo were any good, the Beatles would have played it.” He then proceeded to prove the man wrong as the band broke into a rollicking bluegrass version of “Get Back,” complete with McEuen’s perfect picking.

This was followed up by another undeniable highlight, Canned Heat’s Woodstock-era anthem “Goin’ Up the Country,” which the band covered on their most recent release. Featuring Jimmie Fadden’s harmonica and Bob Carpenter’s keyboards in place of the original’s flute, it definitely had the crowd enjoying themselves. This was followed by “Workin’ Man (Nowhere to Go),” penned by Fadden and inspired by the band’s performance at the first Farm Aid show in Champaign, Illinois. Reminiscent of Cleveland’s own Michael Stanley, it is an unapologetic tribute to the blue-collar worker trodden underfoot by changing times.

Then came the one absolute inevitability, the one song everyone in the crowd knew, “Mr. Bojangles.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1970 cover of the Jerry Jeff Walker song is the definitive version, and the crowd really responded, singing the chorus at Hanna’s invitation like they had suddenly been transported to a Pete Seeger show. The band did a fine job as well, demonstrating why the song has had staying power for over four decades.

At this point, the band changed gears, giving some members a break as they individually showcased their talents. First up were Hanna on guitar and Carpenter coming out from behind his tower of keyboards to take the lead on vocals. He sang “Bless the Broken Road,” an NGDB original made famous to such a degree in its cover version that Hanna noted people often come up after the show and tell them, “Y’all done a really good job on that Rascal Flatts song.” Well, I guess now they know how Jerry Jeff Walker feels.

This was followed up by McEuen’s spotlight session, a terrific bluegrass medley including “Soldier’s Joy,” “Arkansas Traveller,” and “Turkey in the Straw.” By the end, he had everyone in the audience clapping along. At this point, Fadden replaced him on stage for a great harmonica number.

After 80’s hits “Fishin’ in the Dark” and the Jimmy Buffety “American Dream,” the band broke into “Bayou Jubilee” from 1989’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2. McEuen’s fast-sawin’ fiddle awesomenosity had the whole crowd clapping along with his foot-stompin’ rhythm. This transitioned seamlessly into “Jambalaya,” which rocked in a way the Great Hank Williams could never have envisioned. As the show closed, Hanna smiled and told the crowd, “You guys are out of sight,” promising them, “We’ll be back for sure.”

Of course, the fans weren’t going to let it go at that, and they cheered until the band returned. No one will ever know what song Hanna had in mind to play next, because just as he was about call it out, a fan interrupted him from the audience and shouted “Play ‘Propinquity’!”

Hanna, obviously surprised at that particular request, smiled and said, “I’m sorry. It’s been a long night. I can’t even say that, much less sing it.”

“But it’s my favorite song!” shouted the fan.

Hanna’s brow wrinkled as he thought it over for a split second.

“It’s your favorite?” he asked. “Well, come on up,” he said, waving the man to the front of the stage. “We’ll play it for you.”

They started into the song from 1970’s Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy—most famous for including “Mr. Bojangles”—but it only took half a verse before Hanna realized he was singing a love song to a man, and he stopped and got the fan’s wife to join him by the stage.

At that point it was a free-for-all, and when the song concluded and another fan shouted “Ripplin’ Waters!” Hanna just shrugged. After a back and forth about what key they should play in that ended with “It’s just like we used to do it!” they “muddled through” the 1975 song, which came out as if they’d been playing it every night since it was released.


Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, obviously enjoying their time in Kent. Photo by Jason D. Hamad/No Surf Music

The band then took back control of the show, breaking into a lively rendition of the Carter Family favorite “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” featuring vocals alternating between Hanna, Carpenter, and Fadden with a fine pickin’ solo on the 5-string banjo courtesy of McEuen. Amazingly, they somehow pulled off a seamless transition from this old-time classic into the Band’s more modern “The Weight.” It’s at once the most counterintuitive and most appropriate pairing ever, being that both songs feature similar circular structures and surprisingly similar themes. Again, all three vocalists took a turn, with banjo, guitar and organ solos after the verses. Finally, they returned to the “In the sky, Lord, in the sky” closing of “Circle,” just as if the two songs had been married from birth.

After the crowd filed out, I caught up with Jeff Hanna and asked him what he thought now that he’d finally played in Kent. “It was awesome,” he said, sounding a bit like it was his first big show. “The crowd couldn’t have been better. They got us to play one song we haven’t played in decades and another we haven’t played in months.” He promised again they’d be back to the Kent Stage soon. Wherever they play, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band puts on a show that is not to be missed.

Click here for more pics!


For a taste of NGDB live, buy Live Two Five, Live, Volume 1 or Live, Volume 2 on Amazon!
mp3 cd cd cd


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