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MUSIC: Ventura County | ROCKTALK

String Party

Cafe Voltaire invites Nitty Gritty banjo player to headline bluegrass show.

April 16, 1998|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The eclectic Cafe Voltaire will move operations a few blocks south Friday night when it takes over the Ventura Theatre for an evening of acoustic music called "Circle of Bluegrass." So does this mean a Ventura Theatre night at the Voltaire with perhaps Megadeth scaring the cats and the neighbors? So far, probably not.

In any case, the bluegrass program will feature John McEuen & the String Wizards along with local luminaries Copperline and the Rincon Ramblers.

Even the legendary Jimmy Adams will sit in. The Voltaire people, besides providing the soundtrack, will also bring that yummy Voltaire food.

As an Orange County kid, McEuen started out on guitar, but after he saw Doug Dillard of the Dillards play, he got a banjo. McEuen joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1966 after the group had played two shows, then stayed for 4,000 more gigs over the next 21 years, during which time the group recorded 22 albums.

Since leaving the band in 1987, McEuen has recorded a number of solo albums and has toured extensively with the String Wizards, which includes Tom Corbett on guitar, Randy Tico on bass, Phil Salazar on fiddle, Jesse Siebenberg on percussion and son Jonathan on guitar. The elder McEuen, who will make his Ventura Theatre debut, discussed music from his Utah home.

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So what's the deal with the String Wizards?

I'm bringing to Ventura the same band I've taken all over the country, doing some of my songs and some of my favorite Nitty Gritty Dirt Band songs. My best description of it is not bluegrass or country music but Americana, which is all sorts of American music combined.

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Banjo players are like firemen--everyone seems to love them. But there just don't seem to be many banjo players around. Is that so?

Well, I like to think of a banjo as just one instrument I play. On stage, I have an acoustic guitar, a Dobro, a mandolin, a dulcimer and a slide guitar. As to your banjo question, I don't care. You don't see a lot of flute players, either.

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Is there less instrumental music around today?

I think a more correct statement would be that instrumentals have disappeared from the radio scene due to the shaping of commercial radio by accountants. Instrumental music is selling better than ever. Now there are jazz and classical music sections in record stores that never existed before. Also, world music and New Age is mostly instrumental, and a lot of movie soundtracks are instrumental. A few years ago, no one would believe Bela Fleck could draw 1,500 people unless he was opening for the Stones.

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Where does the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fit into the cosmology of American music?

We may not have been as perceptive and . . . astute, but I think we were kind of a West Coast version of The Band. The Dirt Band was a bunch of young guys who never got the credit we deserved until the last five years or so. That was probably due to the eclectic nature of our music. We'd do a bluegrass song, then a jump-blues song and then, maybe, a Cajun song. We were non-Nashvilleans who played acoustic and country music for a younger audience.

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How much time do you spend on the road?

I'm on the road 50% or 60% of the time and I've played in over 4,500 places. I'm not bragging, but what I'm trying to impart to you is that I love bringing all this stuff to people. Traveling can be a bit tedious, but I've been doing it so long. I can't understand people when they say, "I hate this stuff." Then why are you doing it? I think it's a privilege that people want to see you play.

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What was the strangest gig you've ever played?

I was still in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but I've been doing solo gigs since 1975. One time, I opened for Foreigner and I flew to the gig on the same plane with them. I opened my banjo case and two of them, standing behind me, asked "What's that?" Right then I knew I was in trouble. I told them, "This is an American instrument, and it's called a banjo."

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So what's next for you?

I think people like this kind of music more than ever. The last couple of years have been the best years I've ever had in show biz. I've recorded four albums for Vanguard, and I'd like to score a few more films. I just finished scoring an independent film in Ojai called "Love From Ground Zero." I just think everything's just getting better. Everyone is talking about decadence. What decadence? So the president dropped his pants. So what? Just think about the last century when we had wars, slavery and disease. The world's getting better.

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The Rhythm Rangers will host a benefit concert for guitarist Ron Sexton, a recent stroke victim, Sunday night at the Oxnard Hilton. Also on the bill are the Riders of the Purple Sage, John Marx & the Blues Patrol, Jim Calire and local rockers 8 Stop 7. Sexton's son, Chad, the drummer for 311, will also be at the gig.

Tracey Lawrence, Chris Hillman, Tricia Yearwood and Deanna Carter have donated signed memorabilia which will be auctioned off to help cover Sexton's medical expenses. The show is scheduled to run from 6 to 10 p.m. To find out more, call (805) 485-9666.

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The Guy Martin Group will hold a CD release party at Cafe Voltaire on Monday night in a thinly veiled effort to sell you a copy of its latest "In This Together." If rockin' Texas blues by way of California is your thing, then this Guy is the Man, dude. To find out more about this 7:30 p.m. gig, call (805) 641-1743.

BE THERE

John McEuen & the String Wizards, Copperline, the Rincon Ramblers with special guest Jimmy Adams at the Ventura Theatre, 26 Chestnut St., Friday, 7 p.m. $13 advance or $15 at the door. Call (805) 653-0721 or 646-7230.

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