It’s something else entirely when a whole stageful of top Dobro players line up to pay tribute.
Sally Van Meter had the most colorful way of putting it Tuesday night at the Birchmere Music Hall in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, where a Who’s Who of music gathered to pay tribute to Mike, who died in December.
No matter what you call it, the tribute was exactly the kind of thing Mike would have come up with if he had designed the night himself. A casual, fun, at times disorganized picking session with great musicians playing an eclectic mix of music while seated, transforming the 500-seat hall into the world’s largest and coolest living room jam instead of a formal concert setting.
Nearly two dozen musicians, from some lesser known but talented locals to Emmylou Harris, played in a seemingly endless array of lineups. Each of them had ties to Mike, having played with him, having been inspired by him or – in most cases – both.
“Josh Graves was the first. Then Mike,” said Douglas, who organized the tribute show with Ickes. “After Mike, there was nobody else to listen to. After Josh and Mike, there was nobody else I wanted to listen to.”
Ickes, in an interview before the show, said that after he heard Mike’s first solo album while he was a teenager, he changed his standards for listening to a record. “If Mike Auldridge wasn’t on it, I didn’t care to listen.”
You’ll notice I’m not talking a lot about the music that was played at this special show. There’s no need to. Every song, from a first set replication of Mike’s landmark album, Dobro, to the free-wheeling selections in the second set of the three-hour show was stellar, and if you weren’t there to hear them, no amount of words I can use to describe the performance can make you hear what you missed.
I need to make one exception, though. The Seldom Scene, which Mike helped found nearly 42 years ago, opened the second set of the night with Lorena, which developed into Mike’s signature tune over the years. The current lineup of the band sat silently on stage as a recording of Mike playing came through the speakers. The band kicked in the second time through, with Mike’s successor in the Scene, Fred Travers, taking over Mike’s part.
It was a real goosebump moment, similar to the way longtime Scene followers remember the band paying tribute to singer John Duffey in their first show after his untimely death in 1996.
Another of those goosebump moments came when Ickes and Douglas paused to say they were playing two of Mike’s Dobros.
The set list reflected Mike’s varied taste in music. It might be the first time Greensleeves, House of the Rising Sun, Van Morrison’s Moondance and Darcy Farrow were played on the same stage on the same night since, well, since Mike maybe did it on one of his countless performances at the Birchmere.
The biggest verbal compliment to Mike was paid by the biggest star on the bill.
Backstage, before the show, she said adding him to her band was a no-brainer. “Mike was so tasteful. He knew how to play around a singer. You got spoiled playing with Mike.”
She and others played as a giant poster of Mike loomed over them from a corner of the stage. It seemed fitting, since Mike and the Seldom Scene played regularly at the Birchmere over the decades, either here or at two previous locations.
“This is the house the Seldom Scene built,” said Harris, who has graced the Birchmere stage herself on numerous occasions. “This should be an annual event.”
The evening got off to a somber start, which had nothing to do with Mike’s passing. As he walked out to play on the opening number, Scene co-founder Ben Eldridge fell on the darkened stage. After a minute or two, he left the stage to have himself and his banjo checked out.
On any other night, that might have been the end of the show. But on this night, Douglas had a team filled with all-stars waiting in the wings. “Munford,” he yelled toward the dressing room, and in the best show-must-go-on tradition, Mike Munford strolled out, settled into the banjo seat and stayed there most of the night.
Ben jammed his thumb when he fell but his banjo escaped injury. Once the word spread that his injury wasn’t serious, the mood lightened considerably. Ben received a loud ovation when he came out with the rest of the Seldom Scene to open the second set. He responded by pretending to trip near the edge of the stage.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I’ve never been so embarrassed,” Ben said.
But the band was having nothing to do with a Ben Eldridge pity party. Dudley Connell cracked, “He does that all the time just to get attention.” At another point, Fred Travers pointed out that folks come out for Seldom Scene shows for the same reason they go to NASCAR races. “To see the wrecks,” he said. Then, deadpan, he added, “We had one tonight when Ben walked out here.”
Mike would have been cracking up right along with the rest of the band. He likely wouldn’t have had much to say after high school classmate and onetime Scenemate Tom Gray said that Mike “brought the Dobro uptown.”
He would have just stood there on the Birchmere stage, his jeans perfectly creased, and played the fire out of his instrument.
Tuesday night, for three special hours, some of the best musicians around did it for him, creased jeans and all.