The Travelin’ McCourys & Jeff Austin Band brought their Grateful Ball tour to beautiful Memorial Hall in Cincinnati
The Travelin’ McCourys & Jeff Austin Band brought their Grateful Ball tour to beautiful Memorial Hall in Cincinnati on March 2. The Travelin’ McCourys kicked off the evening, with a set of originals and bluegrass favorites that delivered what has come to be expected by the group – stellar musicianship and tight harmonies. The quintet features brothers Ronnie and Rob McCoury, who perfected their mandolin and banjo chops, respectively, playing in their father’s Del McCoury Band. The Del McCoury Band is a legendary fixture on the bluegrass scene, and for the past decade the Travelin’ McCourys lineup of Ronnie, Rob, bassist Alan Bartram, and fiddler Jason Carter have been Del’s backing band. When without Del, the Travelin’ McCourys bring along the impressive guitarist Cody Kilby.
Saying that the McCourys played a traditional set of bluegrass may sound like a negative to some. But for these immensely talented pickers, there is no need to stray into spacey improvisational jam to deliver a mind-blowing set. Fiery-yet-cohesive bluegrass instrumentation brought the crowd in the theater-style seated venue to its feet on multiple occasions. The penultimate song of the opening set was a fantastic take on Passenger’s Let Her Go, and the crowd went into the break still riding the energy of the first set.
The Jeff Austin Band has, in my opinion, taken some time to figure out exactly who the band is and what it’s signature sound will be. But the quartet has come into its own recently, and Jeff Austin’s excitement is still infectious. Pair that with a JAB lineup of award-winning banjoist Kyle Tuttle, the recent addition of emerging young guitarist Julian Davis, and bassist Max Johnson and you have one of the premier jamgrass acts on the scene today.
Jeff led his band out onto the stage and immediately commented that he “feels like a rich friend’s parents went out of town and we are having a party in their house.” alluding to the beautifully restored and intricately detailed 600-seat theater in Memorial Hall. The ambiance of the 100+ year old venue was a fitting backdrop as JAB warmed up and stretched its legs into a few off-kilter improvisational jams from Tuttle and Davis to start the set and draw a contrast with the Travelin’ McCourys tight songsmanship. When an audience member yelled “Let’s get crazy!” Jeff laughed and replied with a simple “OK!” He proceeded to lead the group into mind-bending versions of Austin’s Yonder Mountain String Band songs Ragdoll and Death Trip. The group certainly obliged the fan request and after several psychedelic jams, spacey passages, vocal insanity from Austin that centered around John Hartford’s Boogie With Me– Jeff commented as such to a raucous response from the sold-out crowd.
The Grateful Dead’s songs have been imagined and re-imagined in bluegrass (and jazz and heavy metal and many other ways, for that matter) over the last 3 or 4 decades. Many Dead songs, such as those on the band’s 1981 live acoustic release “The Reckoning,” have a natural transition to bluegrass instruments. But after an opening take on Cumberland Blues, the Grateful Ball pushed into more uncharted waters with Althea, allowing Jeff Austin’s vocal prowess and a stage full of premier musicians to fully shine. A unique offering of Friend of the Devil saw Austin and Ronnie McCoury trade off in a masterful one-upping jam that fed into Mama Tried. After a standard take on Merle Haggard’s sing-a-long, a sequence of New Speedway Boogie > West LA Fadeaway saw Ronnie use his electric mandolin, Kilby employ a mutron-esque effect on his guitar, and deep improvisational jamming from everyone on stage. The notes of Loser seemed to indicate a return to the more traditional acoustic takes, but the jam that built after the 2nd chorus slowly devolved into a heavy hang-banging jam that seamlessly signaled The Other One – a fitting song for the high energy Austin to rile up the crowd one final time before the group segued back into the finale of Loser.
An encore of Franklin’s Tower allowed each member to take turns delivering one final musical bow to the dancing crowd, ending the night on a joyful note and leaving those in attendance with nothing left to do but smile as they filed out.
The Grateful Ball has dates lined up from coast to coast — find them on the band’s websites at the following links:
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