The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Turns in a Stunning Performance
The last day of April was a beautiful one. I made the thirty-minute drive from my home in Midlothian, Virginia to the quiet town of Hopewell, nestled along the banks of the Appomattox River. The sun was moving west, retreating towards the horizon, the clear blue sky taking on the colors that herald the close of the day. As the light began to fade a faint warm breeze seemed to carry the promise of a special night.
The crowd at the Beacon mingled around the concession stand and the bar, waiting for the Dirt Band. Their genial conversations over beers hid an undercurrent, a pent-up post-covid angst that was waiting for the right moment to bust out. And bust out it did. It ran straight into an energized Dirt Band that was running on fresh blood and adrenaline. The ensuing collision of desires fueled an evening of give and take, the sort that audiences and performers feast on.
The band took the stage and launched into “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” a Dylan country rock classic. Judging by the reception it got it was obvious the audience wasn’t going anywhere either, at least not until the last note had been played. The band started their show with the sort of energy that most bands reserve for the encore, and then they turned it up.
The evening featured at least four songs from the upcoming album, Dirt Does Dylan. Having listened to it for the last few weeks I can testify that this is a great addition to the Dirt Band’s catalog. For the record I didn’t write the Beacon setlist down. I used to do that in the early days, but I felt that I was a bit like that family member who spent all of his time recording the reunion instead of being in the moment. I wanted to be in this moment and I was rewarded with one of the most passionate performances I have ever seen.
The entire concert was a highlight reel. The band was clearly stoked to be there and playing at the top of their game. The audience sensed it and responded, egging them on. The vocal harmonies were exquisite, as was the musicianship. Everybody sings in this band. And, at times, the same held true for the audience.
Jimmie Fadden on drums and harp, and Jim Photoglo on bass anchored the proceedings and laid a foundation that the rest of the band members could build on. Singing and drumming is one thing, but throw in harp playing? Fadden brings it in spades. And Fadden and Photoglo are damn good songwriters.
Photoglo’s “Fishin’ in the Dark” rocked the rafters of the restored Beacon Theater and brought cheers from the crowd, as did Fadden’s “Workin’ Man (Nowhere to Go).” In fact, the crowd cheered and called out requests all night long, rewarding the band with several standing ovations.
Old Dogs, New Dogs, and Cosmic Cowboys
This left Jeff Hanna and Bob Carpenter to work their magic with the two newest members of the band, Ross Holmes on fiddle and mandolin, and Jaime Hanna, Jeff’s son, on acoustic, electric and slide guitar. In our phone interview for the current issue of Okra Magazine, Jeff Hanna described the impact the two new members had on the band. “It’s like when you throw a couple new puppies in a pen with the old dogs. The old dogs start playing again. It brings a whole new energy level.”
Ross Holmes and Jaime Hanna came with their own impressive resumes. Holmes has performed with Mumford and Sons and been one of Bruce Hornsby’s Noisemakers. The younger Hanna has been a member of the Mavericks and a longtime member of country singer Gary Allen’s band. Together they bring their experience and zeal to a veteran unit that has a storied career.
The evening was filled with songs from the best of the American songbook. In addition to their own original tunes, the Beacon resounded with the songs of Rodney Crowell, Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, Hank Williams, and, of course, Bob Dylan.
Early in the set the band dove headfirst into the Michael Martin Murphey number, “Cosmic Cowboy.” The elder Hanna encouraging the audience to hoot along with the chorus. “Buy For Me the Rain” took the crowd all the way back to the band’s hippie jug band roots.
The much-loved crowd pleaser “Ripplin’ Waters” gave each band member a chance to shine. Jaime Hanna turned in a gorgeous acoustic lead, and then joined his father on dual electric leads at the end of the song. The younger Hanna offered a beautiful, melancholy take on Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” while his father had a ball with a joyful rendition of Dylan’s “Country Pie,” a song the elder Hanna truly loves.
Late in the evening Fadden, Carpenter, and Jeff Hanna held the stage for a gorgeous acoustic rendition of “God Bless the Broken Road.” Much like Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel of the Band, Hanna, Fadden, and Carpenter each bring their own vocal strengths to the table. Carpenter is the soul man of the group and it showed, especially on the classic “I Shall Be Released.”
Jaime Hanna is an example of what might be called the genetic method, evidence that talent often runs in families. His singing is superb, and although he can sing harmonies with his dad his voice is distinct and all his own. His guitar playing is great and his instincts about what to leave in and what to leave out are spot-on. The father-son dynamic is a joy to behold and proof positive that the circle does indeed remain unbroken.
Ross Holmes is a virtuoso on mandolin and fiddle and fits in this band like he was born for the moment. When I first saw him in 2019, I was taken by just how good he was. At one point during that 2019 show my wife looked at me as if to ask what planet he had beamed in from. At the Beacon, Holmes’ fiddle breaks pushed the band into overdrive and the audience into a frenzy. If they are coming anywhere near you do not miss this tour.
I had come to Hopewell hungry for live music. To experience communal fellowship, the sort of transcendence that occurs when total strangers fill a room eager for a dispensation of joy; one that washes away the cares of the day. I had come down to the river to have my burdens lifted. I came up from there with more than I asked for.