The Travelin’ McCourys And The Jeff Austin Band Bring The Grateful Ball To The Rex Theater

Words by Shane McFarland

Pittsburgh’s Rex Theater played host to the Grateful Ball on Tuesday night, featuring two of the top bluegrass bands in the scene today, the Travelin’ McCourys and the Jeff Austin Band. Following sets from each respective band, the two forces joined together for one collaborative set focusing in on the music of the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia.

Opening the night to an enthusiastic Tuesday night crowd, the Jeff Austin Band dove head first into several of Austin’s most cherished compositions, including “Too Late Now,” “Death Trip” and “No Expectations.” For those who have not seen him since his days with Yonder Mountain String Band, it was very refreshing to see and hear these songs played again. Austin’s supporting cast of Kyle Tuttle on banjo, Max Johnson on bass and Mike Robinson on guitar is a young nucleus, but as talented as can be, the energy between the quartet palpable. An intense version of “Jesse James” was another one of the standouts of Austin’s set as was a set closing “Rag Doll” that wove its way in and out of bluegrass, punk and perhaps some metal. It was great having Jeff Austin and company back in the Burgh.

If there ever were an all-star team of bluegrass musicians, it would unquestionably be the Travelin’ McCourys. The number of awards among them is staggering, and for good reason. Their classic takes on tunes like “Shady Grove,” “On The Lonesome Wind,” and  John Hartford’s  “The Ring Of Love” highlighted the first half of their set, with some blazing instrumentals along the way showcasing each member’s sterling virtuosity.

As a tribute to American icon Tom Petty who recently passed at the age of 66, the Travelin’ McCourys dialed up Petty’s “Love Is A Long Road.” It was a heartfelt moment to say the least. The McCoury’s set rounded out with a great cover of Passenger’s “Let Her Go” as well as Pittsburgh-flavored bluegrass diddy, “Six Days On The Road.” Needless to say, this got quite the ovation from the hometown crowd.

Following the Travelin’ McCourys’ set, all four members of the Jeff Austin Band made their way back to stage to present the main attraction for the night: the Grateful Ball. It was such a treat to see all nine musicians on stage together trading licks and playing off of one other. “New Speedway Boogie” opened the set and was followed by searing versions of “Cumberland Blues,” “Deep Elem Blues,” and a slowed down “Candyman” before a monster “Fire On The Mountain” highlighted by Ronnie McCoury’s brilliant work on the electric mandolin, transforming the jam altogether. “Loose Lucy” and “Franklin’s Tower” closed the set with a classic take on “Pig In A Pen” serving as the encore, a fitting send off selection.

Take a look through our full gallery from the Grateful Ball below. All photos via Pat Bruener.

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