All-Star Concert Honors Jeff Austin In Colorado
I first noticed the distinctive half moon rising in the early evening sky on my drive down from Boulder to Broomfield, but I was far from the only one that noticed it throughout the evening. Every time I overheard another person comment on this almost too-perfect celestial coincidence as it grew closer to doors opening, I was reminded, while I was still outside, to keep taking a moment to pause and simply gaze upward.
Over the past few months, I’ve dwelled on these little moments when thinking of what Jeff Austin meant to me. I still can’t quite sit with the big messy feelings, tangled up in a knot as they are. But I can speak to the gratitude I felt for the love and strength of community that came together at 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colorado last night. During “What The Night Brings,” the memorial benefit concert for the mandolinist, songwriter and former Yonder Mountain String Band frontman, I was reminded, as I’ve been so often this summer and fall, that none of us float alone, although it can be easy for many of us, myself included, to often feel we are drifting alone. At several points during the night, I had to stop and take in the overwhelming amount of dear friends filling the rows below and above me in the bowl.
We were here together, side by side, for reasons that ran far deeper than an epic soundtrack. As my friend Jessica Barman said so well. “Jeff was a catalyst to a world I never knew existed. He brought out things I didn’t know I had in me because he made a space where it was okay to be weird, to just be yourself.” While Jeff gave us fans permission to step into an authentic, slightly messy and exciting space, and “find the others,” as Timothy Leary said, he surely did the same for many musicians. One glance at the staggering roster for “What The Night Brings” spoke to Austin’s reach throughout, as well as beyond, the bluegrass and jamgrass scenes.
Musical direction was provided by Nick Forster, who also served as emcee for the night. He was the perfect choice for the role, providing a calm center of gravity and speaking plainly as he introduced the night ahead: “It just sucks. It sucks that Jeff is not here with us.” The show held space for both genuine grief and celebration, as Forster’s introduction brought us to Sam Bush who kicked off the evening by enlisting Billy Strings, Noam Pikelny and Greg Garrison to stoke the crowd with a sing-along version of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” complete with instructions to “root, root, root for the Cubbies,” Jeff’s favorite team. Bush shared Austin’s love of baseball so thoroughly that he would later recall how their impassioned conversations about the sport were often mistaken for arguments by onlookers.
There was clearly a lot of care and intention taken in matching artists on the lineup to Austin’s songs. No one tried to re-create what Jeff brought to the stage — they simply spoke to it in their own voices. Future bluegrass superstar Kyle Tuttle led an all-star lineup on “Steep Grades, Sharp Curves,” bringing both an old soul and youthful energy to the world weary headspin captured in Austin’s tale of an ill-fated hitchhiker romance. Later, Keller Williams and Keith Moseley tapped the urgency, and breathless hope, of a family escaping a devastating flood in “New Horizons.” Both songs highlighted Austin’s ability to breathe new life into bluegrass tropes in his own songwriting.
But when Jeff stepped into another artist’s song, he would also peel off with it down a path that was uncannily his. At one point during Leftover Salmon‘s take on traditional, and staple of 1.0 Yonder sets, “Boatman’s Dance,” Vince Herman appropriately changed the lyrics to, “Dance boatman dance/And never go away,” verbalizing our collective need to keep tending this spark. Meanwhile, Andy Hall‘s warm vocals were highlighted in John Hartford tune, “Cuckoo’s Nest,” with Jeremy Garrett a particular standout as he traveled fast between the night’s emotional peaks and valleys via his fiddle.
My personal favorite takes on Jeff’s music of the night were both from Greensky Bluegrass. Namely, an exhilarating “Peace Of Mind” followed by the too-keen ache of the Benny “Burle” Galloway-penned “To Say Goodbye, To Be Forgiven.” Paul Hoffman cited Austin as a friend and mentor, and he indeed channeled the longing that howls in “POM,” as well as the tenuous dance between hope and heartache through “To Say Goodbye.” The coupling of these songs summed up the seemingly irreconcilable polarities contained in this night and made them coexist, if just for a moment. Anders Beck then remained on stage for a duet with Sam Bush on Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes,” before the stage was opened up for more musicians to turn the duet into a one-song supergroup for the rousing set closer of The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek.”
The second set opened with a solo performance from Todd Snider on his very own “Sideshow Blues.” This was a song that Jeff turned into a rallying cry for all us weirdos who found ourselves at home on the rowdy side stage. Taking the stage next, Umphrey’s McGee guitarist Brendan Bayliss said, in a nod to all the “freaks and musicians” at the 1stBank Center, “Jeff would be fucking blown away.” Bayliss, joined by Forster on guitar and North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson on drums, had a refreshingly rough rock edge in the two 30db selections that highlighted his collaboration with Austin. Bill Nershi took a more personal take on Austin, speaking of his unique presence. “He was a force of nature,” Nershi said, providing a nice frame for SCI’s “Restless Wind.”
Mimi Naja was then joined by Pilkelny, Travis Book and Forster (“I got to handpick my pickers” she gleefully said), offering up a take on “Sorrow Is A Highway” that left me floored. Loss doesn’t disappear, it simply weaves itself into the road we travel. This hit especially hard when Bayliss returned to the mic, this time to share a note from Jeff’s mother. Understandably, she was not up for attending. But she shared her grief, as well as her gratitude, with honesty and clarity. The depths of this shared familial pain that is, frankly, unfathomable to many of us. Most importantly, she implored us to “keep his music alive.”
As one of Austin’s favorite bands and biggest inspirations, and as the trailblazers who first charted the path that most other musicians on the bill would follow, Hot Rize kept the inspirational fires burning. On a night that kept bringing back memories, there could have been no better song choice than “High On A Mountaintop” — and no band I’d rather hear play it.
By contrast, in all honesty, I wasn’t sure what place I was going to be in during Yonder’s set. In 2014, when Austin and Yonder Mountain String Band parted ways, the fanbase saw a similar split. But death puts the loss of a musical experience in a certain perspective. As Austin’s former bandmates, Ben Kaufmann, Adam Aijala and Dave Johnston, joined by post-Austin additions Allie Kral and Jake Jolliff, took the stage, I tried to let go of my expectations and my “what-if’s.” This turned out to be easy, as “Half Moon Rising” brought me back to the beginning of the night and my skyward ponderings.
I let the crowd energy buoy me through this “Moon” and on into “Keep On Going.” That song always made me hopeful — but tonight it felt like an absolute necessity. To finish off the trio of their “three favorite Jeff songs,” as Kauffmann said, Vince Herman was recruited to lead a raucous “Ramblin’ In The Rambler.” As Herman’s, “Wellllll,” wailed throughout the crowd, arms were raised aloft. Then, as the song drew to its Jager-soaked shot peak, the stage filled with the evening’s musicians, each holding shot glasses. The audience answered in kind with their beverages — a unified, arena-wide toast that seemed to hold the air electric for a good long while after everyone downed their respective drinks.
The duo of Billy Strings and Bryan Sutton then offered up “That’s Where I Belong,” which served as a nice compliment to The Travelin’ McCourys‘ “Passin’ Thru,” both songs speaking to our own temporary, constantly restless human nature. Railroad Earth then brought the second set to a close, filling “What The Night Brings” with energetic light, especially in a Tim Carbone-led jam.
Before the encore, Forster left us with the reminder that, “We are all in this together, so look out for each other.” As musicians began to gather behind him, I tried to keep count. At one point, I estimated close to 40 musicians on stage. That’s a rough guess, but exact numbers won’t capture the sheer force of impact that that many instruments strummed in unison make. It would be nearly impossible to pick a song for this sonic setting, but I felt “No Expectations” had both the emotional heft and genuine uplift to provide a container for the sound. It also has a history of reinvention from The Rolling Stones to Hartford to Austin. As the musicians combined in a wall of sound, artist Scramble Campbell waved the painting he created at the show. It looked like a swirling night sky reflected over the water, complete with a half moon rising over the water, a perfect reflection of our unified wave.
All proceeds from the concert benefited the Jeff Austin Family Fund.
Pro-Shot Videos (via nugs.net)
Take Me Out To The Ball Game
Soundcheck Jam/New Horizons
Piece Of Mind
Your Light Leads Me On
Fan-Shot Videos (Captured by Kyle Isaac)
Steep Grades, Sharp Curves
Half Moon Rising
To Say Goodbye, To Be Forgiven
Setlist (via Camp Greensky)
Set One: Take Me Out To The Ball Game (Sam Bush, Billy Strings, Noam Pikelny & Greg Garrison), Daybreak In Dixie, Steep Grades Sharp Curves (Jean Luc Davis, Mimi Naja, Kyle Tuttle, Julian Davis), On Your Side (Carey Harmon, Bridget Law, Mimi Naja, Lindsey Lou), Soundcheck Jam (Keller Williams, Keith Moseley), New Horizons (Keller Williams, Keith Moseley), Troubled Times (Leftover Salmon), Boatman’s Dance (Leftover Salmon), Cuckoo’s Nest (Infamous Stringdusters), Rise Sun (Infamous Stringdusters), Peace Of Mind (Greensky Bluegrass), To Say Goodbye, To Be Forgiven (Greensky Bluegrass), Sailin’ Shoes (Sam Bush, Anders Beck), Up On Cripple Creek (Greg Garrison, Carey Harmon, Jeremy Garrett, Noam Pikelny, Billy Strings, Sam Bush, Anders Beck)
Set Two: Sideshow Blues (Todd Snider), Backfire (Brendan Bayliss, Cody Dickinson, Nick Forster), Susanah (Brendan Bayliss, Cody Dickinson, Nick Forster), Restless Wind (Bill Nershi, Keith Moseley, Andy Hall, Jeremy Garrett, Chris Pandolfi), Sorrow Is A Highway (Noam Pikelny, Billy Strings, Mimi Naja, Travis Book), Your Light Leads Me On (Hot Rize), High On A Mountaintop (Hot Rize), Half Moon Rising (Yonder Mountain String Band), Keep On Going (Yonder Mountain String Band), Ramblin’ In The Rambler (Yonder Mountain String Band, Vince Herman), Jager Shot (All), That’s Where I Belong (Billy Strings, Bryan Sutton), Passin’ Thru (The Travelin’ McCourys), Things In Life (The Travelin’ McCourys)
Encore: Even Fade (Railroad Earth), What The Night Brings (Railroad Earth, Kyle Tuttle), No Expectations (All)