North Lake Tahoe was treated to a bluegrass spectacular Friday night at the Crystal Bay Casino when the Jeff Austin Band and the Travelin’ McCourys teamed up for three spellbinding sets of jam music.
Each band has strong ties to both the traditional and progressive strains of bluegrass and the pairing was an impressive showcase of just what’s possible in that genre today. The Travelin’ McCourys are of the finest musical pedigree as the backing band for legend and showmaster Del McCoury, with his sons Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Rob McCoury on banjo continuing the family’s legacy. They are well versed in the roots of bluegrass but by no means are they traditional, having found themselves a nice little niche in the last decade touring and playing within the jamosphere, sharing stages and recording with artists such as the Allman Brothers, Keller Williams and The String Cheese Incident.
Jeff Austin has never been traditional and is still trailblazing a path that started with progressive luminaries Yonder Mountain String Band. Forming the band in 1998, he was at the forefront of the most recent jamgrass explosion at the turn of the millennium, moving bluegrass into exploratory territory that had usually been reserved for bands such as the Grateful Dead, Santana and the Allman Brothers. Austin parted ways with the Yonder in 2014 and has continued to tour with different configurations of his Jeff Austin Band, which keeps raising a warm-hearted middle-finger to notions of what is bluegrass music by incorporating traces of rock and roll, punk and pop.
The co-bill’s tour is dubbed The Grateful Ball and Friday night included each band playing a set of music and then everyone coming together at the end for a third set of Grateful Dead songs. The configuration proved to be deeply satisfying as the hourlong-ish sets distilled the richness of both Jeff Austin Band and the Travelin’ McCourys into their most concentrated musical moonshine, with the communal Dead set acting as a sweet, cherrywine nightcap.
The Travelin’ McCourys took the stage first with the relaxed and confident air of professional bluegrass musicians who’ve been performing at fairs and county festivals since they were young kids. The brothers McCoury come from fine stock and they delivered smooth and effortless solos as if it were second-nature, which, considering who their father is, is probably the case. They were joined by bassist Alan Bartram, fiddler Jason Carter and guitarist Cody Kilby and seamlessly weaved a thread from the hallowed gospel harmonies and barn-burning breakdowns that form the foundation of bluegrass to the extended musical odysseys and textured stylings that define the more nuanced and contemporary areas of the genre.
One thing that was inescapable when watching the Travelin’ McCourys was the incredible musicianship that was permeating through the members’ fingers. The notes flickered off the frets like flames and the music moved at a breakneck pace that sat in opposition to the relaxed grins on all of the band members’ faces. They moved with the commanding precision of a sharpened blade in the hands of a whittler, carving out succinct solos one at a time to the buzzing delight of the crowd.
The band’s range was quite broad and touched on traditional songs and chart-topping Top 40 songs throughout its first set. They played a beautifully crafted rendition of the recent smash “Let Her Go” by Passenger that turned the song’s rainy day somberness into a warm hum of acoustic interplay that felt like the sun’s rays through the atmosphere after a rainstorm. On the classic “Six Days On The Road,” Ronnie brought out his son Heaven — looking like a young, straight-laced Ted Nugent — to join the group on guitar. He played with capability, though definitely timid in the presence of such mastery on the stage. On the final all-chips-in jam to close out the set, however, he held his own and delivered a confident, dexterous solo and released a genuine smile of accomplishment while the whole crowd wailed in support. Dad was happy, too. The McCoury legacy will live on just fine.
Jeff Austin added to his own legacy in the second set. The mandolin wiz was in a playful and rambunctious mood, going off on musical tangents with the carefree attitude of an afternoon romp in the woods. The set was full of sweaty, dirty-faced jams with a ruffian spirit, much like the bandleader himself. Austin jumped and bobbed around to the band’s music, with each instrumental solo eliciting a different dance.
They’re might not be a bluegrass band out there with as much arena-rock showmanship as Jeff Austin Band, as Austin and banjo player Kyle Tuttle were constantly throwing power stances and “stink-face” grins at the crowd as the music blasted around them. The pinnacle of the set was a free-range “Rag Top” that had a moment that felt like the band was meticulously pulling at the fabric of the atmosphere, which quickly collapsed into a rowdy, gritted sing-along.
All nine musicians crammed onto the stage at the end to combine two of Tahoe’s most cherished pastimes— bluegrass and the Grateful Dead— to an ecstatic crowd. Though they had just danced through two whole sets, the music lovers crammed into the Crystal Bay Casino Friday probably hit peak dance mode as the songs of Jerry Garcia and company swirled around them. “Friend Of The Devil” was a sun-kissed frolic that got the best hippie-twirling of the night and a cheery “Franklin’s Tower” was jammed out fully as the nine musicians passed their solos down the line like a jug of wine.
Seeing either the Travelin McCourys or Jeff Austin Band play by themselves would have made for an incredible night of music. Add the two together and you got a memorable night. When you have both bands combine for a set of Grateful Dead songs after two full sets, you’ve got an unforgettable night.