Still Circlin’ Back with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Circlin Back 2

Two years now, and the memory of that night still makes me smile.

I’ve had a handful of concert experiences that still leave me breathless remembering them – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band back in 1984, the Brian Wilson band doing “Smile” – but the most exhilarating night of them all was Sept. 14, 2015, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Friends at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The venue, the band, the performances, the crowd, all came together in the magical way that music can.

And how blessed we are to have a permanent video record – PBS turned it into an hourlong pledge drive feature with an extended DVD. Even though it’s not complete, the TV show captures the celebratory spirit of that night, when the band marked its 50th anniversary with some of the singers and songwriters they met on their journey.

Circlin Back 1Thanks to YouTube I’ve cobbled together a personal double CD of all the songs they played that night (seven performances didn’t make the cut), so the only thing missing are the four “first takes.” They got word from the sound booth three times when the director or producer or someone wasn’t quite satisfied. Both Rodney Crowell songs and “Mr. Bojangles” were do-overs.

My favorite oops – which came after Jimmy Ibbotson offered a rambling, awkward introduction about what “Fishin’ in the Dark” really means – was when Jimmy stopped cold in the middle of the song and said, “I sang the second verse first, didn’t I?” Even the introduction was smoother the second time through.

My most transcendent moment came at the break in “Ripplin’ Waters,” because I had forgotten that the song had evolved into a 10-minute epic sometime after it was recorded for the 1975 album “Symphonium Dream.” When that break came around the six-minute mark, I leapt to my feet to cheer because it was a gorgeous performance, but then Bob Carpenter started playing his cascading, rippling keyboard solo that takes the song to another level – kind of like Jess Stacey enhanced “Sing Sing Sing” in another historic concert way back when. I think I was unconscious with joy after that song.

Sometime in the ensuing couple of years I realized the obvious about these guys I’ve followed since I bought their first single, “Buy for Me the Rain,” in 1966 and have seen seven times over the years, six of them with my beloved Red: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is my all-time favorite group. And here all this time I thought it was the Beatles or CCR or the Beach Boys or someone like that.

P.S. By the way, if you want to compile your own version of the complete concert (and in the original order – the DVD shuffles it), here’s the set list I scribbled down as it happened. Someday I’d love if they’d release a “Circlin’ Back Concert Complete” CD/DVD/stream/whatever.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, of course, is Jeff Hanna (lead vocals and guitar), Jimmie Fadden (harmonica, vocals and drums), John McEuen (banjo, fiddle, mandolin, etc.), and Bob Carpenter (vocals and keyboards). On this night Sam Bush (mandolin), Jerry Douglas (resonator guitar) and Byron House (bass) were also on stage most of the night.

1. You Ain’t Going Nowhere

2. The Face On The Cutting Room Floor

3. Grandpa Was A Carpenter (w/John Prine)

4. Paradise (w/John Prine)

5. My Walkin’ Shoes

6. Return to Dismal Swamp II

7. Tennessee Stud (w/Vince Gill)

8. Nine Pound Hammer (w/Sam Bush)

9. Honky Tonkin’

10. Working Man (Nowhere To Go)

11. Buy For Me The Rain

12. These Days (w/Jackson Browne)

13. Truthful Parson Brown (w/Jackson Browne)

14. Bless The Broken Road

15. Keep On The Sunny Side (w/Alison Krauss)

16. Catfish John (w/Alison Krauss)

17. An American Dream (w/Rodney Crowell and Alison Krauss)

18. Long Hard Road (w/Rodney Crowell and Alison Krauss)

19. Cosmic Cowboy

20. Mr. Bojangles (w/Jerry Jeff Walker)

with Jimmy Ibbotson:

21. Dance Little Jean

22. Ripplin’ Waters

23. Fishin’ In The Dark

24. Bayou Jubilee/Sally Was A Goodun

25. Jambalaya

26. Will The Circle Be Unbroken (w/everybody)

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