Travelin’ McCourys and Jeff Austin Band play the Grateful Dead’s Fire on the Mountain – photo by David Russell
Before the Grateful Dead pioneered psychedelic rock music, Jerry Garcia played bluegrass.
One of Garcia’s first gigs in the early 1960’s was playing banjo in the Black Mountain Boys bluegrass band. His next project, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions evolved into folk-rock band the Warlocks which then again evolved into you guessed it, the Grateful Dead in 1965.
So it’s fitting that the Travelin’ McCourys and the Jeff Austin Band have been performing on and off together since last summer on the Grateful Ball tour, a bluegrassified tribute to the Dead.
As the long time backing band of Del McCoury, the Travelin’ McCourys represent a bridge to the roots of the traditional bluegrass music that Garcia loved. Jeff Austin, as a founding member of Yonder Mountain String Band was one of the first in a new wave of musicians that modified bluegrass and brought it directly to enthusiastic jam band audiences in the early 2000’s.
Together the two bands have put together a popular format – each group plays a set on their own, followed by a joint set of modern bluegrass arrangements on Grateful Dead material.
The show began as a one-off performance last summer at Urban Chestnut Brewing in St. Louis but proved so popular that the two groups set off on a seven-city northeastern tour in October, a seven city tour out west in February and a five-city southern tour in late March and early April.
The McCourys played their final Grateful Ball of the Spring with Austin on April 2 at Terminal West in Atlanta, but more shows are planned for this summer at a number of festivals including DelFest, Grey Fox and the John Hartford Memorial Festival.
A special edition of the Grateful Ball sans Austin is also scheduled for April 14 at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado. That performance will feature Adam Aijala of Yonder Mountain String Band and Drew Emmitt, Andy Thorn and Greg Garrison of Leftover Salmon.
The Grateful Ball in Atlanta began with a spirited set from the Jeff Austin Band with the mandolinist exuding his trademark energy and improvisation on stage. The former Yonder Mountain String Band front man played a few of his tunes from his days with Yonder including crowd favorites Half Moon Rising and Looking Back Over My Shoulder.
After a long intermission and the air thick with what probably wasn’t just smoke from the fog machine, the Travelin’ McCourys took the stage playing a tight set of originals, traditional tunes and even a two pack of John Hartford covers in Natural to be Gone and Back in the Goodle Days. The group finished with an impressive bluegrass rendition of Passenger’s Let Her Go and then put an exclamation point on the set with a rousing version of the standard Why Did You Wander.
The Grateful Ball portion of the show opened with Austin taking the lead on the Dead classic Fire on the Mountain and then a Ronnie McCoury led cover of Cumberland Blues before the bands combined on a truly epic rendition of Friend of the Devil with McCoury and Austin trading off notes during the solo.
While there were definitely a large contingent of deadheads at the show, the crowd seemed evenly split between fans of bluegrass and fans of the other more popular type of grass.