Grateful Ball feat. The Travelin’ McCourys & Jeff Austin Band 3.3.19

Otus Supply
Ferndale, MI

Words & Photos by Jon Rosenberger (PhotoFooFoo)

The Grateful Ball, the occasional theme of bluegrass stalwarts The Travelin’ McCourys rolled into Detroit last Sunday for the first time. The Ball which previously was more likely to show up at the McCourys festival events is on a tour of sorts this spring hitting a long list of smaller venues throughout the Midwest before the McCourys head into summer and perform it at both ROMP and the inaugural Smoky Run Festival this June. Jeff Austin who has been collaborating with the McCourys on the Grateful Ball since 2016 joined them again for this run and brought the JAB along with him. Each band performed a set of their own music before gathering everyone onstage together for a third set celebrating the music of the Grateful Dead.

Otus Supply Co. just north of Detroit has become a magnet in the string music world for musicians tired from the dingy cramped dressing rooms and cold pizzas of a musician’s tour life. Hosts Thom Bloom and Scott Myrick along with local promoter Joe Choma have given Otus a deserved reputation for treating all artists as guests, and filling their bellies with the best their restaurant can offer while also providing an amazing room with incredible sound in which to perform. This tends to bring in some names to play their club sized venue that would typically be playing larger rooms elsewhere in the country. Such is the case of the Jeff Austin Band who passed through Otus for the first time last June and happily introduced the McCoury clan to the food and fun on this go round.

The McCourys, fresh off their win for Best Bluegrass Album at the Grammy’s a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, got things started with mandolinist Ronnie McCoury singing a few grass numbers before Alan Bartram (bass) took over the microphone for "The Shaker" which just happens to be my favorite song from their eponymous debut record. Hearing Alan’s rich voice filling the room got all of the crowds attention and really got the night up and running. The McCourys did a dozen or so songs with several extended jams between Rob McCoury (banjo) and “the new guy” guitarist Cody Kilby throughout the evening. Jason Carter sang "The Hardest Heart" from the new lp as well as several others and the emotion he brings to his singing is just as strong as what he brings to his fiddle bowing. Clearly the years spent backing up Del out on the road have made the Travelin’ McCourys a concert powerhouse in their own right and it’s great to see them finally break to a bigger audience and become overnight sensations after nearly a decade playing under their own band name.

After a brief respite for refilling of glasses the Jeff Austin Band took the stage. One of the wonderful things about the Grateful Ball shows is there is no changeover of equipment onstage so set breaks are brief. Jeff has a new guitarist with him on this tour; ‘America’s Got Talent’ alum - Julian Davis. No relation to JAB bass player Jean-Luc Davis. Julian sat in for a few shows last year and while I initially thought he had been brought on board to bookend the band with fellow cowboy boots enthusiast -banjo magician Kyle ‘Bobcat’ Tuttle on stage right, in fact he is a welcomed addition to the band, adding some highly acrobatic fretboard work over on stage left. It will be amazing to see this band grow with another young player for Jeff to duel with every night and props to Jeff for continually refining his band and seeking out players who challenge him and his playing. JAB quickly rips through several Jeff tunes before changing things up and celebrating Doc Watsons 96th Birthday by launching into "Red Haired Boy," Jeff and the band really rip through the ol fiddle instrumental and Bobcat starts dropping banjo rolls like a New York city sushi chef on a Saturday night alternated with Jeff’s mando chop chop chop and Jean Luc’s booming bottom end. It’s a clear highlight to hear them work through a track that they don’t play regularly, and the crowd give them a loud cheer when they finish. A few more songs including a spirited run through of the traditional "Jesse James" featuring some great fretwork from Julian and some bluegrass rapping Jeff Austin style and JAB sprints offstage to clear the way for the main event.

Now the thing about the Parliament Room at Otus Supply that you need to understand is that; its not a big room, and when the room isn’t that big, the stage just can’t be that big. In fact, it’s only 12’ x 18’. So, when all 9 of the guys from these two bands walked up the short set of stairs for the third set it looked as crowded as it was down in front of them and the stage is nearly as bouncy as the dance floor below. Neck after neck after neck all lined up with Jason Carter’s fiddle bringing up the rear and carving a little extra space for himself on the end so he doesn’t poke anyone’s eye out up there. And away they go, launching straight into "Cumberland Blues" with Ronnie singing the lyrics. The band swings through "Friend of the Devil" and then Alan Bartram lends his rich baritone to "Mama Tried" before Jeff practically screams FIRE! "Fire on the Mountain" really gets the crowd going as they sing along with the rocker and the nine guys play like they always have two of everything onstage as each take turns weaving in and out of each other’s lines. Ronnie brings things back earthward with "Brown Eyed Woman" and then the band quickly launches into "West LA Fadeaway" with Jason Carter looking for an LA girl with all that he has, the band right with him playing like the Dead never did and sounding like they always felt. Jeff sings "Women are Smarter" with an unusual peppiness, stifled a bit because he doesn’t have room for his usual Jeff-iness of head throws and leg kicks and arm windmills.

The the band just gets plain jamtastic with a "Loser>Other One>Loser" jam. The crowd is still all here after midnight on a school night as the band pops offstage for just a moment to give the nod to the encore gods and then comes back onstage roaring. They give a brief birthday shout out to sound guy extraordinaire Key Chang and flip it from stun to kill for the finale. Rob gets thoroughly banjtastic for the opener on "Franklins Tower" which gets a visible fist pump from Kyle Tuttle who then goes fret to fret with Jason Carter and seems to enjoy having a fiddle player to duel with, Ronnie is raining mando notes down like a waterfall while Jeff just looks all over the stage gloriously enraptured being in the center of such amazing music and directing traffic nodding to one guy after another to take a few lines and add to the melee and then it all comes to a crashing halt. A quick group bow and the ball is over and Cinderella is off to catch her pumpkin. It’s been a hellava night. Do catch the Grateful Ball if it passes anywhere near ya this spring and enjoy the punch!

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