John McEuen - guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, steel guitar, accordion, vocals; Jimmie Fadden - guitar, bass, harmonica, drums, vocals; Jeff Hanna - guitar, drums, percussion, washboard, vocals; Jimmy Ibbotson - guitar, piano, keyboards, accordion, conga, drums, vocals; Les Thompson - bass, guitar, mandolin, vocals
Long before The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was recognized for championing country and bluegrass music with their monumental album Will The Circle Be Unbroken, they were creating records that defied categorization and giving eclectic performances that reflected the hippie culture of the times. In the late 1960s, when hard rock and psychedelic music reigned supreme, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was taking pop, jugband, country, folk, bluegrass, Cajun and a healthy dose of comedy and blending it into a mix uniquely American and all their own. Every member was a multi-instrumentalist and they could easily have been a top-notch rock band, but their embrace of acoustic instrumentation and their broad musical vision left radio programmers bewildered and they remained relegated to obscurity.
The albums Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released between 1967 and 1969 received little attention, but their big break finally occurred in 1970, with the release of Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy. This album became a surprise hit, helped by their catchy cover of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles," which shot up the singles charts, giving them greater exposure than ever before. This album, too, was an eclectic mix, but for the first time they left the pop and overtly humorous elements behind. Instead, they achieved a delicate balance between rock, folk, country and bluegrass that was both infectious and immediately accessible. Fiddles, banjos, mandolins, harmonicas and accordions were all present, in addition to guitar, bass and drums, but it was clearly the extraordinary musicianship and choice of great material from relatively unknown songwriters that made this album so compelling. This was sing-a-long feel-good music of the highest caliber and it remains the early lineup of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's crowning achievement.
This live recording, when the band opened for The Byrds, will be particularly fascinating to longtime fans, as it captures this early lineup on the road shortly after the Uncle Charlie album release. An abundance of that material is performed live here, as well as a few vintage songs from their obscure 1960s albums. A few clues to where they would go on their next album are also included, in addition to a few flat-out surprises.
The group welcomes the audience with "Yukon Railroad," an Uncle Charlie track co-written by a young Kenny Loggins, a songwriter whose talent they would be one of the first to recognize. Following an unfortunate gap in the recording, it resumes with soon-to-be hit, "Mr. Bojangles," well underway. Although incomplete, it's a pleasure to hear this live when it was still fresh. Next up is a joyously rockin' cover of Buddy Holly's "Oh Boy."
Then we get a first preview of the album they would record the following year, with a rousing rendition of Hank Williams's classic Cajun offering, "Jambalaya." Although the group weren't the most authentic practitioners of Cajun music, their love for it is obvious and it would figure more prominently in their future recordings. "Alligator Man" also falls in this category, one of the few 1967 era recordings to remain in their setlist. They also nod to the ragin' Cajun himself, Doug Kershaw, by playing his "Diggy Diggy Lo" for the encore of this show, another preview track destined for their next album.
More of the Uncle Charlie album is featured here. On the instrumental side, Earl Scruggs' "Randy Lynn Rag" features John McUen's banjo pyrotechnics, and the traditional "Opus 36" is also quite impressive. There's also a delightful full band version of Kenny Loggins' "House At Pooh Corner" that grooves along nicely and has a more ragged feel than the version Loggins would soon record himself. They also briefly investigate Stephen Foster's "Swanee River" which features Fadden's wonderful harmonica playing and then surprisingly changes into the electric jug band tune, "Travelin Mood."
Which leaves us with the unusual close of the show, where the band turns into a humorous hippie vaudeville act! Without spoiling the fun for first time listeners, this begins with a monologue that sets the scene for Frankie and Delores, two teenagers trapped in 1956. Suffice it to say, this is quite funny with hippie perspective commentary on culture, fashion and music circa 1956. It culminates in a brief skit that sets the tone for the full blown 1950s style love song, "Goodnight, My Love, Pleasant Dreams," complete with four-part harmony doo wop vocals. A perfect way to end a show. As the crowd shouts for more, they play a brief "Rock On!" outro ditty before returning for the aforementioned encore.
For anyone interested in what The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were up to in their pre-Will The Circle Be Unbroken years, this is a fine place to start. The music from Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy is what many found so intriguing in 1970 and here you have much of that music, in addition to rare material few have ever heard.