Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was inspired by the intimacy of the Birchmere on Monday night, using the nearness of the audience and a crystalline sound system to showcase the strengths that have made it an American music mainstay for 38 years.

All five members were in fine form, connecting with the audience by means of humorous asides and performing with a comfortably loose attitude. Surely by now they can perform "Cosmic Cowboy, Part 1" -- which they first covered in 1974 -- in their sleep, but Jim Ibbotson and Jeff Hanna were anything but robotic, playing it with enthusiasm, as if they couldn't wait to hear it themselves. Another highlight was an extended jam on Ibbotson's "Ripplin' Waters," composed in 1975.

Clearly the success of the band's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" series -- Volume 3 came out in 2002, 30 years after Volume 1 -- has energized the ensemble. John McEuen was nimble as ever on banjo, mandolin and guitar, and drummer Jimmie Fadden was invaluable not only for his subtly shaded rhythms but also for his dynamic harmonica, which he played as he drummed. Bob Carpenter's keyboards supported all the furious fingerpicking that was transpiring on the stage.

The show began with an impressive set by Jeff Barbra and Sarah Pirkle, a charming husband-and-wife duo from east Tennessee. With their clear harmonies, elegant guitar and fiddle work and an authentic love for the music, they ably keep the Appalachian music tradition alive. A spellbinding performance of their "Welcome to My Heart" -- soulful, thoughtful and gorgeously sung -- was about as perfect as a ballad can be performed.

-- Buzz McClain

The Bad Plus

Aconspicuous quote in the Bad Plus press packet insists: "We never thought of ourselves as a jazz band. We don't think of what we are at all." And while the New York trio -- whose clever interpretation of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a hit with the public radio crowd last year -- may not believe in labels, most everybody else with an opinion has hailed them as the deftest merging of jazz and rock since Miles first asked for John McLaughlin's phone number.

The Bad Plus played a very un-jazz club (the 9:30) Monday night with energy, volume and raucous audience response that were all rock-and-roll. But the interplay among pianist Ethan Iverson, upright bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King (formerly with underappreciated rockers 12 Rods) was angular and complex -- clear jazz flight that betrayed serious knowledge of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. So Bad Plus songs like "Big Eater" and "Layin' a Strip for the Higher-Self State Line" were undeniably jazz-rock, but their sudden melodic upsurges -- amazingly driven by King's powerhouse playing -- would have sounded pretty cool under any guise.

Though all three (the bald pates of Iverson and King sandwiched the grizzled Anderson to great visual effect) are capable composers, their covers may be their most exciting work. Monday they uprooted Aphex Twin's "Flim" and the Pixies' "Velouria" before swingingly disemboweling Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and their now-famous Nirvana staple during a pair of encores. And if new Bad Plus songs like "Anthem for the Earnest" are indeed the future of jazz-rock, then here's to a new wave of fusion.

-- Patrick Foster