John McEuen, regarded as a pioneer of the five-string banjo in pop rock and one of the founding members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, made a surprise appearance at the Carpinteria Plaza Playhouse on Nov. 16.
The last-minute show featured his sons, Jonathan and Nathan, and a parade of local musicians who have collaborated with the McEuens over the years. The concert was a dress rehearsal of sorts for their show at the Lobero Theatre the following night.
The occasion was the celebration of the album For All the Good that the three McEuens recently released — the first on which they have collaborated.
The capacity crowd at the tiny theater was treated to a night full of classic bluegrass sounds with two solid sets of music. The show began with a short solo set by Jonathan McEuen, a regular visitor to the tiny theater.
He was joined by a succession of talented local musicians who have been associated with various McEuen recording sessions in the past. Each musician took a turn as lead vocalist and showcased his or her specific musical talents.
Finally, they were joined by Nathan McEuen for a set of pop bluegrass and folk classics. Then there was an interim talent show of sorts with area musicians showcasing their acoustic talents, including True Mason, the son of legendary guitarist Dave Mason.
After a brief intermission, John McEuen appeared on stage as the surprise guest, performing a short set of classic banjo tunes, dating as far back as the early 1800s. The banjo maestro told detailed anecdotes between songs, featuring everything from the history of bango music in the United States to a story about playing with the Grateful Dead in San Francisco in the 1960s. At that memorable show, he said his band (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), played so loud that “a dog walked in front of the speakers and died of a heart attack.”
After his eloquent solo performance, John McEuen was joined by Nathan and Jonathan and the other band members for a rousing set of songs from their new album interspersed with some Nitty Gritty Dirt Band classics, including songs from the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.