The Travelin’ McCourys and Jeff Austin Band are bringing their collaborative Grateful Ball to OTR’s Memorial Hall on Saturday, March 2nd. After individual sets from each group, the bands will come together on stage to celebrate the music of the Grateful Dead with a full set of explorative bluegrass takes on classic Dead tunes.
The Travelin’ McCourys 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. But when dad stays home, the Travelin’ McCourys bring along guitarist Cody Kilby and get a little more rowdy -- transitioning from a ‘traditional’ bluegrass band with Del to a more progressive, modern bluegrass band that incorporates stretched-out improvisation, rock themes, and instrumental effects.
The Jeff Austin Band features mandolinist/lead singer namesake who rose to fame as the frontman for jamgrass pioneers Yonder Mountain String Band. On a personal note, I remember when two friends went to Bonnaroo in 2003 and came back with a sampler CD (wow, I feel old now) with YMSB’s ‘Rambler’s Anthem’ on it. I can specifically remember hearing this song - my first experience with bluegrass - while riding in the backseat of my friend’s car and being instantly hooked. Seeing Jeff lead YMSB on-stage in a small bar in Oxford, MS, a couple years later is one of my favorite musical memories.
That same energy and vocal craziness that Jeff used to lead YMSB to the top of the bluegrass/jamband world in the 2000s came with him in his solo venture Jeff Austin Band when YMSB split from their original configuration in 2014. Jeff’s excitement is infectious -- pair that with a JAB lineup of award-winning banjoist Kyle Tuttle, emerging young guitarist Julian Davis (new to the band in 2019), and bassist Max Johnson and you have one of the premier jamgrass acts on the scene today.
The Grateful Dead’s songs have been imagined and reimagined 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 the Grateful Ball goes beyond the typical selections from the Dead catalogue to breathe bluegrass life into songs such as Althea, allowing Jeff Austin’s vocal prowess and a stage full of premier bluegrass musicians to fully shine.
Bluegrass, improvisation, Grateful Dead, walking distance from OTR’s Bockfest, all with the fitting and complimentary backdrop in the historic ambience of Memorial Hall. Count me in.