John McEuen looks back on 50 years of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House
If You Go …
What: John McEuen and Friends present ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Thursday, Jan. 19, 8 p.m.
How much: $35
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
John McEuen doesn’t appear to look back very often.
At 71, the music legend and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founding member is still regularly playing and recording new music (including the fall release of his acclaimed “Made in Brooklyn”) and finding new creative avenues (he’s currently working on film scores and a spoken word album). But this week in Aspen he’s reflecting on 50 years of the Dirt Band with a multimedia retrospective concert at the Wheeler Opera House.
“It’s more like a description of a work-in-progress for me,” McEuen said in a recent phone interview. “It’s showing where it came from.”
With live music, photos, videos and stories, Thursday’s show at the Wheeler will recount how McEuen and his band of California hippies revolutionized country rock and made the watershed triple-album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” with a healthy dose of tales from old Aspen.
McEuen’s special guests will include Dirt Band members Les Thompson and John Cable, along with a cameo by Jimmy Ibbotson and local longtime friends of the Dirt Band like Bobby Mason and Jan Garrett.
“Coming back to Aspen to do this show is very important to me and the guys I’m bringing,” McEuen said.
Aspen oldsters may see themselves in some of the multimedia footage from the Dirt Band’s early ’70s Aspen heyday.
McEuen recalled playing a string of shows in 1970 in Denver, where an Aspenite spent a week trying to convince the Dirt Band to come play the remote ski town.
“We didn’t know what a ski town was,” McEuen said with a laugh. “But we decided to go give it a shot.”
They played the Aspen Inn — at the base of Aspen Mountain — for a week of gigs, and thus began the band’s deep and long-running relationship with the town.
“Everybody fell in love with Aspen,” McEuen recalled. “This was back in the days when everyone was arguing about things like, ‘Do we need a traffic light?’”
After they were spooked by an earthquake in Los Angeles in February 1971, the band packed up and moved to Colorado, just as Aspen’s hippie era hit its stride. While McEuen settled in Idaho Springs, a handful of members — and the band’s manager, McEuen’s brother Bill — moved to Aspen full time (Ibbotson, who lives in Woody Creek, is the only one still here full time in 2017).
They became something like Aspen’s house band, which came with its benefits. For example, McEuen recalled trading 14 season ski passes to Aspen Highlands in exchange for an apres-ski concert for Highlands employees.
They’d play long runs of shows — two weeks at a time, at the Aspen Inn and elsewhere — and got tight with local musicians, from John Denver to Bobby Mason and Jan Garrett.
“Bobby is one of the only guys I ever paid to hear sing,” McEuen said of Mason.
Garrett also joined the Dirt Band for its historic tour of Russia in 1977 — a diplomatic mission and sold-out 28-concert run at the height of the Cold War. They became the first American band to tour the U.S.S.R. Before they got the OK to go behind the Iron Curtain, McEuen recalled, Russian cultural affairs officials came to see the band play here.
“What better audience could the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band play in front of in 1977 than an Aspen crowd?” he asked rhetorically.
Garrett had been singing with the band at local gigs and became the lone woman on the Russian tour.
“She was great to have on that trip,” McEuen said. “We felt it necessary and important to bring a female singer because we were representing a broad pastiche of American music, and a bunch of guys didn’t quite do it all.”
During those heady early days, when hits like “Mr. Bojangles” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” were cementing the Dirt Band’s place in rock history, McEuen knew something special was happening.
“I had a sense, in what I saw from the stage, that we were doing something that was reaching people,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why I have so many photos and things. I felt, not necessarily that what we were doing was important, but the era that we were going through was important.”
Likewise, his 50-year retrospective at the Wheeler, he said, isn’t necessarily about him or the Dirt Band — it’s about you.
“It’s not just a show about the Dirt Band’s life and mine, but the life that a lot of people went through with us,” he explained, adding with a chuckle: “Like, ‘Oh, we got married to that song!’ or ‘We got divorced to that song!’”
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