Editor’s note: Jeff Austin passed away on June 24, 2019. Here’s a look back at a show at the Crystal Bay Casino.
The Jeff Austin Band took the stage April 24, 2015, in the Crown Room at the Crystal Bay Casino to a round of glowing applause and cheers. The floor was not as packed as some shows but the ovation was louder and more appreciative than most. These people had come to see a pillar in the jam-grass community, someone they had been listening to for years. Jeff Austin was more than just a musician these people liked, he was like an old friend who had returned after a long, hard journey. What better way to greet an old friend than cheerin’ and yippin’?
The last time Jeff Austin played a Lake Tahoe concert was a year ago when he took the stage with Yonder Mountain String Band. It was the band he had founded and toured the country with since 1999, ushering in a new blend of bluegrass that was made by people who listened to Phish and the Grateful Dead. Twenty days later, on April 23, almost a year earlier to the day, Austin and Yonder amicably split ways citing creative differences. Austin was now on his own and able to pursue whatever sounds in his head he wanted to. So what would be different on Austin’s solo loop around the lake?
When Austin took the stage, he was again surrounded by three talented compadres, no difference there. But this time he had Eric Thorin on bass, Ross Martin on guitar and the jovial Danny Barnes on banjo. They have been touring with Austin as he supports his solo release, “The Simple Truth.” Together, the foursome was a string band behemoth that prodded the outer limits of the bluegrass galaxy.
Austin seemed invigorated as he performed his usual mandolin wizardry. He approached the night with a confidence that was fun to watch, as he pushed the instrument into territories incorporating jazz, bluegrass and country. Furthermore, he always did it with a playful attitude that invited contributions from his stellar bandmates. And as usual, his solo faces were on point.
Barnes was a pure delight to watch, as a smile never fell from his creased cheeks as he clawed and picked up and down his banjo. He has kind of always done his own thing in music, never hip enough but always cutting edge. This was evident when he would turn up the distortion of his banjo and produce a sound like ripped hot sheet metal as he tore along the banjo’s neck. He was tenacious and the band was wonderfully rounded out by the steady churning of Martin and the precise reverberations of Thorin.
The band members definitely had a lot of fun interweaving their instruments together and produced a number of exemplary jams. Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,’ which gained a new audience and sound from the Grateful Dead, was a serendipitous gospel-grass number whose stutter-step melody provided a launch pad for Barnes and Austin to wail on their respective instruments. “Rag Doll,” which was written by Barnes and Austin a number of years ago for Yonder Mountain String Band, proved to be the highlight of the night. It was a titan of a jam in which all members thoughtfully added their talents too. Thorin had a delectable jazzy bass breakdown in the middle of the song, before Austin and Barnes took it on a spacious romp. As the song wound down, all four lowered their heads and throttled it into a knockout ending.
The crowd was very responsive to Austin, Barnes, Thorin, and Martin and danced harder and louder than a lot of crowds in the Crown Room. They could not get enough of the band and elicited not one, but two encores from Austin and company, who seemed touched by the appreciation. During the double encore, the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Austin like a bunch of friends at a bar, before he ripped into a high octane version of “Raleigh and Spencer.” ‘Til friends meet again.