When singer Martha Redbone joined Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (NGDB) singer and multi-instrumentalist John McEuen to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” at the Eighth Step on Saturday as vintage photos of the sessions 40 years ago appeared behind them, the torch was truly passed.
McEuen opened, playing solo, recalling his NGDB days in a tribute set to projected photos and video and comprising songs, stories and jokes. His “East German shepherd” dog, he claimed, kept people IN his yard, for example. He played banjo and guitar, often very well — better than he sang, in fact — and he entertained by riffing on his age and his fans’ shared memories.
Singalongs evoked the nostalgia of “Mr. Bojangles,” the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme and even older numbers from “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which mainly framed tributes to departed musicians on that now-40-year-old album.
At times, however, this nostalgia-fest didn’t seem to fit well with what would follow: “The Martha Redbone Roots Project: The Garden of Love — Songs of William Blake.”
But then the big unbroken circle of the show revealed itself.
McEuen produced Redbone’s album of William Blake songs: poems sung through the same Appalachian prism as the NGDB’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
And Redbone — a stunningly soulful singer — managed to create a remarkably coherent and powerful unbroken circle, grafting her African-American/Choctaw background onto Blake’s poems.
Blake’s “The Garden of Love” soared on big blues wings, Schenectadian George Rush’s bass, Alan Burroughs’ dobro and Aaron Whitby’s piano giving Redbone’s fervent voice full flight. She and Whitby transformed Blake’s poems into either blues — “A Poison Tree” — bluegrassy rips — “Hear the Voice of the Bard” — or Gospel glides — “On Another’s Sorrow.”
However, with Blake’s “A Dream,” Redbone incorporated a Seminole chant, its moral force alternating with Blake’s stanzas. Ollabelle Reed’s bluesy “Undone in Sorrow” took her back to Kentucky; and the Creek Jim Pepper’s “Witchi-Tai-To” and Fred Red Crow Westerman’s “Drums” were as (Native) American as music gets. “Drums” protested the forced assimilation of native children through government boarding schools where their languages were forbidden. Redbone said her Choctaw grandfather attended one, then she gave a deeply passionate cry of outrage in Westerman’s words.
McEuen joined in late in the set, after Redbone celebrated him in Blake’s “The Ecchoing Green,” in which Blake could almost have written about McEuen, citing white hair and parental pride. McEuen played in skilled support, co-starring with Burroughs’ dobro on “I Rise Up at the Dawn of Day,” for example.
When Redbone closed with “I Heard an Angel Singing,” it seemed to the crowd that we were. What a great voice! And who knew Blake was so musical? Redbone and her band did. As powerful as Redbone’s vocals rang, she never eclipsed the band, which felt organic and strong. Everybody shone at solo time, Redbone giving Rush major props in “Keep Your Eye on the Prize.”