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Published: 2013/03/06
by Nancy Dunham

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Birchmere, Alexandria, VA – 2/28

If awards are ever presented for “legendary band that hasn’t become its own tribute act,” the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would surely be a top contender.

That’s not to say lead singer and co-founder Jeff Hanna and his band mates are opposed to dipping back into the band’s rich catalog. After all its current tour, which started at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., is built around the 40-year anniversary and recently remastered vinyl release of the group’s landmark album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. But the band takes great pride in weaving its newer songs throughout the set. Since the group has always remained true to its country-rock roots, the songs always seem to fit flawlessly into the mix.

When Hanna, much lauded multi-instrumentalist John McEuen (who filled the slot opened when Jackson Browne left the band about a year after it formed almost 47 years ago), founding member Jimmie Fadden and multi-instrumentalist Bob Carpenter took the stage, energy bristled through the audience.

“We are excited to start this tour at the Birchmere,” said Hanna, greeting the near-capacity crowd with thanks for their long-time allegiance to the band, before launching into Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” “Here’s the first song of the year.”

During the 21-song set, the NGDB took fans on a ride through the almost 50-year history of the group, which shares credit with the Byrds for morphing folk rock into country rock.

Indeed, the Circle album, which featured NGDB playing with such country luminaries as Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff and Earl Scruggs, is widely credited with influencing a generation of musicians including and the Eagles.

NGDB may be rightfully proud of its legacy but its members have never dwelled exclusively on its past hits. The set list for the night included fan favorites, of course, including Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and Jimmy Ibbotson’s “Dance Little Jean,” but also included hearty doses of newer songs including “Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble to Me,” and “The Resurrection,” both from the band’s 2009 Speed of Life album. The classic NGDB song “Working Man (Nowhere to Go),” penned by NGDB drummer Fadden was played as a salute to those struggling in this economic climate.

Hanna, always generous in his role as front man, gave call outs to each band member and also old friends in the audience including former NGDB member Les Thompson.

But the true joy of the evening was watching Hanna, whose youthful appearance makes one wonder if he has a “Dorian Gray”-type portrait in his attic, McEuen and the other band members display their virtuosic chops. Perhaps the finest example was McEuen’s 5-string banjo prowess on a near-raucous version of “Return to Dismal Swamp.”

Just prior to the show, McEuen talked about how comfortable he and the other band members feel at the club and how that prompts them to always strive to offer just a bit extra to the area audiences.

“When I play here, I feel like I’m in front of a group of friends,” he said. “I feel like I’m playing my hometown.”

The spirited crowd clearly returned the sentiment.

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