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Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Serious, Good, Clean Fun

Pop music review: These guys have been together a while, and their enthusiasm and confidence show in fine vocals and versatility on instruments.

May 01, 1996|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — The defining moment of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's quartet's typically solid, 80-minute set at the Crazy Horse on Monday night came about halfway through, with guitarist-singer Jimmy Ibbotson's introduction of bandleader Jeff Hanna: "He plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, sings, writes songs, bats left and throws right."

If he plays baseball anywhere near as well as he performs in a band, it's easy to imagine the talented Hanna coming through with a late-inning pinch-hit or a diving catch. That goes for each versatile band member.

During nearly 30 years since its first show at the Paradox Club in Orange--the anniversary of the group's debut is May 13--the Dirt Band has constantly refined its musical recipe for spicy American stew, which includes everything from jug, folk and country to bluegrass, roots and pop music.

These musicians change instruments almost as often as the rest of us inhale, constantly employing different combinations of mandolin, bass, guitar, keyboards, drums and harmonica (the latter two often played simultaneously by Jimmie Fadden, who, with Hanna, founded the group. Ibbotson joined in 1969; keyboardist Bob Carpenter is the newcomer, with a mere 18 years as a Dirt Band member).

The shared lead vocals of Hanna and Ibbotson add to the instrumental mastery. Showcasing his twangy, weathered, often nasally pipes, Ibbotson took the lead for the first five selections. These numbers spanned almost the entire length of the band's career, from Michael Nesmith's lovesick "Some of Shelley's Blues," a minor hit for the group in 1969, to a rollicking version of Buddy Holly's "Maybe Baby," which the group recorded for the recent "notfadeaway" multi-artist Holly tribute album.

Ibbotson added a lighthearted touch as well, introducing a new number by declaring: "Now this song makes no sense, so don't try and do anything with it."

Hanna offered his softer, more pop-leaning vocal style, stepping up to the plate for a crowd-pleasing rendition of their biggest hit, Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles." Refusing to gather moss and enhanced by chiming acoustic guitars, tight harmonizing and, in particular, Carpenter's rippling piano lines, this heartwarming tale still warms the soul.

Casually dressed in jeans but playing with serious intent, each musician brimmed with confidence and enthusiasm, whether performing delicately or jamming furiously.

*

After a defiant "Working Man (Nowhere to Go)," Fadden stepped out from behind his drum kit and let loose with a bluesy, chugging harmonica solo that echoed the sounds of a locomotive barreling down the tracks.

Less dynamic but equally captivating was Hanna's electric-guitar work. His low-key approach offered a study in subtle phrasing and dynamics, with his one or two notes frequently dazzling listeners with the unexpected.

Adding a taste of folk and bluegrass strains to the mix, Ibbotson's mandolin strumming somehow defied logic by being both soothing and invigorating.

Perhaps more than anything else, though, the Dirt Band brings a smile with songs that resonate with the sheer joy of shared good times. Such upbeat, melodious tunes as the Joe Ely-sounding "Fishin' in the Dark," the celebratory "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and the best song that Jimmy Buffett never did, "An American Dream," let simple but sweet melodies and choruses work their magic in wondrous ways.

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