There’s a great passage in John McEuen’s book “The Life I’ve Picked,” published last year, in which the former Nitty Gritty Dirt Band banjo player and multi-instrumentalist describes the band’s time in Colorado, specifically in Aspen, where some of the NGDB members lived. The time was around 1971, and characters like Steve Martin, Jimmy Buffett and the Eagles were hanging around town, riding a collective wave of creative energy, about to make it big.
“We had a few great years of everyone skiing and becoming mountain people, but then the town began to change,” he writes. “We should have seen it coming when they started putting in traffic lights.”
McEuen would ultimately move away from Colorado and spearhead the landmark NGDB album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in Nashville in 1972, but the bond with Aspen had been forged. So tomorrow night when McEuen and his band the String Wizards take the stage tomorrow night at the Wheeler Opera House at 7:30 p.m., yes, they will be coming full circle, but that’s the cliché story.
The real story is that if you’re a fan of the NGDB, tomorrow night’s show is going to be about as close to a reunion tour as you’re ever likely to see, thanks to a last-minute addition of a band member near and dear to local hearts.
In addition to original NGDB members McEuen and bassist Les Thompson, as well as guitarist Matt Cartsonis, the String Wizards band includes former Dirt Band guitarist John Cable. And guitarist Jimmy Ibbotson, a longtime NGDB member who decided to stay in Aspen, seems to have accepted McEuen’s invitation to join the band on stage, according to McEuen. Fingers crossed.
With four NGDB members on stage, including three of the five from the band’s 1969-1973 heyday, it’ll be a rare chance for Aspen audiences to hear the music that birthed the Americana genre performed by its actual progenitors. But don’t expect a singalong retrospective of NGDB hits. McEuen has decades of other music (including two albums with Ibbotson) from which to draw, and he tries to make every show unique depending on the venue and the audience.
“We’ll be doing some of the best Dirt Band stuff, including some of the stuff off the ‘Circle’ album,” said McEuen, “but we’ll also be doing songs from my last album, ‘Made in Brooklyn,’ and telling stories to go along with a multimedia show that’ll show that’ll be on the screens behind us. I’ve got footage and stills from the Dirt band days showing what a great time it was.”
McEuen and the String Wizards toured the show around to roughly 100 cities last year, and it’s been “going over like hot cakes.”
“It’s the best thing I’ve put on stage in years,” said McEuen.
It may be a little grittier than it was 48 years ago, but that doesn’t mean Aspen won’t love it just as much.