in performance: john mceuen

John McEuen.

“I’ve never played a castle before,” remarked John McEuen, as a twilight mercifully free from the storms that pounded Lexington and Versailles throughout the day, settled in over the Kentucky Castle. “It’s kinda fun.”
Yeah, it kinda was. The acclaimed banjoist best known for his extended tenures in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (he left the group for the second time in December), offered a loose fitting career retrospective that used his fish-out-of-water profile of a string music stylist from Southern California playing in the heart of the Bluegrass as a focal point.

McEuen established his traditional music credentials at the onset of the two hour performance, running through a swift solo banjo medley of the instrumentals “Soldier’s Joy,” “Arkansas Traveler” and “Turkey in the Straw,” coloring their familiar melodies with an antique air that made them sound even more old-timey in design and demeanor than they already were.

That led to introductions of three backing musicians, two of which were fellow Nitty Gritty Dirt Band alums – bassist Les Thompson (a founding member who departed in 1973) and guitarist/mandolinist John Cable (a brief inductee from when the group was known simply as the Dirt Band in the late ‘70s). The other, the extremely animated guitarist, vocalist and mandola player Matt Cartsonis, has recording and/or touring credits with Warren Zevon, Steve Martin and the Austin Lounge Lizards.

It was tough to gauge just how familiar the near-capacity audience was with McEuen’s work. Case in point: He was met with unexpected crowd quiet when he brought up the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s breakthrough 1970 country/bluegrass/rock mash-up album “Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy.” Everyone bolted to attention, though, when McEuen played the record’s hit cover of “Mr. Bojangles.”

There were numerous career twists and turns which then took McEuen to guitar, mandolin and even fiddle. While McEuen’s occasional turns at lead vocals were serviceable as best (Cartsonis and Cable rightly handled the lion’s share of the singing), his musicianship never short of scholarly – from the beefy banjo tone and wicked tuning turns navigated within the Earl Scruggs staple “Earl’s Breakdown” to the more progressive mix of waltz and jazz phrasing that propelled “Acoustic Traveler,” one of several tunes played from McEuen’s newest recording, 2016’s “Made in Brooklyn.”

But the show-stealer in this kickoff to a performance series aptly titled “Concerts at the Castle,” was – no surprise – the Kentucky Castle itself. Last night, the stage, artist and audience were all situated under a huge tent to keep out rains that finally ceased a few hours before showtime, so getting a full sense of venue’s splendor was difficult (although it helped fashion the set-closing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” into a literal tent revival). Still, for those (myself included) catching their first glimpse of this almost mythic Central Kentucky property from the inside, the setting proved functional, spacious and majestic.

The day’s storms also kept the concert from bring staged, as was initially planned, on the castle’s main roof. But the silver lining in presenting it at ground level held, aside from the safety factor, was a view that was subtle but quite magical. What the audience saw behind the stage was the castle’s battlement-style wall – specifically, the other side of the wall that has faced Versailles Road, enchanting and often perplexing passers by for nearly 50 years.

Last night, the wall’s main gate was open, music poured forth and the rains retreated. All was right in the kingdom.

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