DENVER — For the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the circle was left unbroken at the band's 20th anniversary concert Tuesday night. But unlike the words to the old country standard, the event took place not in the sky but in the Mile High City.
The veteran country-folk-rock group that played its first show in May, 1966, at the Paradox club in Orange, marked two decades of music making with an exuberant all-star celebration at McNichols Sports Arena.
Over the course of nearly 50 songs in the 4 1/2-hour show, more than 10,000 fans got a healthy sample of the variety that has marked the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's career since it was born two decades ago out of Long Beach-Orange County folk scene.
It remains one of the few groups that can successfully move from Bill Monroe's traditional bluegrass to Cab Calloway's jumpin' jive to Bruce Springsteen's driving rock.
Fittingly for a group whose two decades are framed by its first hit, "Buy for Me the Rain," and its latest single, "Stand a Little Rain," the original plans to hold the concert at the outdoor Red Rocks amphitheater were quashed by heavy rainstorms for three days before the sold-out show.
Less than 12 hours before dozens of guest performers would be appearing with the Dirt Band, as it is often referred to out of expediency, the site was shifted to the indoor McNichols Sports Arena.
The only note of disappointment in an otherwise celebratory evening was the news that Colorado favorite son John Denver was unable to appear as scheduled because he contracted the flu in Italy earlier in the week.
But it would have been hard to imagine any complaints following several riveting performances by Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Doc Watson, Rodney Crowell and Jerry Jeff Walker among the highlights.
The show's format had been described as similar to the band's famous "Last Waltz" because, like that all-star show, the Dirt Band provided backing for most of the performers rather than each bringing his or her own regular band.
But since it was a recap, rather than a swan song, it would have more accurately been dubbed as the group's "Anniversary Waltz." Additionally, most artists performed songs that were in some way associated with the Dirt Band. Jerry Jeff Walker joined the group singing "Mr. Bojangles," the song he wrote in 1970 that became the group's biggest pop hit, while Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell aided the group's performance of its 1980 hit "An American Dream," which was written by Crowell.
The show began with a 45-minute set by the Dirt Band alone, in which the quintet "dusted off" several rarely played songs from its past, including Kenny Loggins' "House at Pooh Corner" and Mike Nesmith's "Some of Shelley's Blues," guileless numbers that underscored the band's winning--and remarkable--sense of innocence. That quality has stuck with the group and is evident in more recent hits like "Dance Little Jean" and the autobiographical "Partners, Brothers and Friends."
Over the next four hours, the Dirt Band was joined by Doc Watson for a thrilling bluegrass set that was followed by segments featuring Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, J.D. Souther, Nicolette Larson, Rodney Crowell, Oak Ridge Boys member William Lee Golden, Michael Martin Murphey, former Pure Prairie League vocalist Vince Gill, as well as numerous instrumentalists.
The evening's climax was a performance of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" followed by a rousing reading of the country gospel standard "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
The fans weren't the show's only beneficiary--as a partial benefit, the concert raised $5,000 for Denver Post charities.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band grew out of a series of musical associations that group founder Jeff Hanna began while a student at Long Beach City College.
At one time known as the Illegitimate Jug Band, the group was typical of the folk-oriented conglomerations of the early and mid-'60s spawned by the Weavers and disciples such as Peter, Paul and Mary.
Hanna recalls skipping a night class to do the Jug Band's first concert at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. One member of Hanna's group during that period was another Orange County resident musician--Jackson Browne.
Its first show as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which also included drummer Jimmie Fadden who is still with the group, was at the Paradox club in Orange. That show remains little more than a blur to the band members who were there. Fadden simply recalled that it was "too much fun," while Hanna said, "All I remember is that it was packed, smoky, and I was scared to death because it was the first show we headlined."
Shortly after that, Hanna spotted Garden Grove resident John McEuen sitting in at the Golden Bear with a New York bluegrass band and invited him to join the group. Vocalist, bassist and guitarist Jimmy Ibbotson joined in 1968, while keyboardist Bob Carpenter rounded out the present lineup in 1978.