First up, however, was the local country-folk-bluegrass quartet Graber Grass, led by acoustic guitarist, mandolin player and lead singer Michael Graber. Adam Brooks took on the fiddle role, while occasionally playing acoustic guitar and vocals, Daniel McKee held down the upright bass and local banjo legend Randal Morton plucked away to fill out the lineup. Graber Grass started out their set very soft, even keeping their distance from the microphone to emit more of a background music sort of atmosphere. As the crowd filled in, however, they gradually ramped it up until they had the audience cheering loudly after each song. They even invited local folk singer and multi-instrumentalist Kitty Dearing on stage for a few songs, which is always a treat!
Up next, it was the Jeff Austin’s turn to get up on stage for his first trip to Memphis “with the new crew,” as he so aptly put it. I was pleasantly surprised that the band started off the night with quite a few songs that Austin used to sing with Yonder, such as “Raleigh and Spencer” and “Sisters and Brothers,” creating a sense of familiarity while still taking the songs in new directions. They would also go on to play some other songs from his Yonder days, like “Ragdoll,” “Sideshow Blues” and “Reuben’s Train,” later on in the set. The band would also go on to play quite a few Jeff Austin Band originals as well, including “Run Down,” “15 Steps,” “Living In Between” and the title track of the new album, “Simple Truth.”
I must say, I was a little bit skeptical about the improvisational aspects of the “new crew” going in to the evening. I was very excited to see Austin and Barnes, as I am familiar with both of their past works, but I was not familiar with Thorin or Martin. My instincts were primarily correct on the individual level; the entire night seemed to be the “Jeff and Danny Show” as I thought of it. Those two were locked in the entire night and seemed to be leaning on each other most of the way through, not just musically, but they were actually physically leaning toward each other for most of the show! Danny Barnes takes the banjo to dramatically new heights, working in pedals and feedback to reach new sonic peaks. One audience member told me he was “like Hendrix for the banjo!”
Eric Thorin certainly held his own on the upright bass as well. While I did not see anything particularly spectacular from him, he thumped on the bass and kept the timing locked down and unwavering all night. Ross Martin had a few shining moments in his solos, but his primary abilities came in the form of group improvisation and time keeping.
As a group, the new band seems to give Austin a much more experimental route in improvisation than his former bandmates. While they played it fairly safe for the first couple of songs, it did not take them long to dig deep into dissonant, psychedelic jam sections, reminiscent of those along the lines of Phish (except in bluegrass). Aside from some abrupt departures into these sonic experiments (which will tighten up as the band plays together more), it was a breath of fresh air to see Austin able to dig his heels in. It is obvious that he has felt a need to take his improvisation further, and I am very happy to see that he has found a group of musicians to surround himself with that compliments this desire so greatly.
Overall, the Jeff Austin Band absolutely killed it! It is apparent from his performance that Austin’s departure from Yonder Mountain String Band came from a place of ambition and not one of dislike or mistrust for his former bandmates. I expect to continue to see Austin grow alongside his “new crew,” and I highly recommend seeing them if they come to a city near you!
Words and Photos: Randy Harris
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