Jeff Austin and Friends Diamonds Louisville, KY 9-1-13

Written by David Shehi

September 3, 2013

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Jeff Austin is a lucky man, and he’s wise enough to know it. On a cool Sunday night in Louisville, Kentucky, Austin’s manic style and crazed smile acted as a diversion until he and his friends passionate playing left fans breathless from cheering for more. Over his decade plus fronting the Yonder Mountain String Band, Austin’s had the privilege to play shows around the world to delighted fans of all ages, on more stages than anyone could remember. In his travels, he’s met and performed with a who’s who of musicians, sharing the unspoken connection that occurs between artists lost in collaboration. So when he decides to gather together some of the insanely talented friends he’s made along the way and jump out on the road for a quick spin around the music scene you can be sure the skill level will only be matched by the fun factor.

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Hosting the night’s festivities was a reconfigured landmark, the Diamonds Concert Hall. From the parking lot which has been used in celebrations for the Kentucky Derby that featured Bob Dylan and Dave Matthews, to interiors that have featured every type of music from DJs to bluegrass bands the location has a pedigree that many new ventures would appreciate. Having been through a number of owners over the past two decades, the newly rechristened Diamonds has an instant charm brought about by it’s years of operation. Previous owners left spacious open areas that have been converted to lounging areas, a pool hall and an acoustically sound thousand person main hall. It was the first visit for many of those in attendance, and the reaction to the newly redone interior was the talk of the crowd. That and the giddy anticipation of the show to come from the faithful.
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Bloomington is more than the home to the Indiana University, it’s also the base of operations of the New Old Cavalry. A five piece bluegrass band which had it’s beginnings in the halls of academia soon grew into a force that drew the attention of Hot Buttered Rum’s Nat Keefe, who reached out to the band and produced their last two studio efforts. A forth coming EP features more tracks from those sessions and more, helping keep the band loaded with material to play for their quickly growing fan base.
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Taking turns on the mic rocking back and forth between tight, full band jams and round the horn picking parties, the New Old Cavalry did their job and did it well. They had their own cheering section of fans and well wishers, and by the end of their forty five minutes set of deftly interwoven tunes and that fan base had grown in size considerably, judging from the smiles, hoots and hollers at the end of each number. Leaving the stage with a hurried air, the band quickly changed from performers to part of the ever growing throng waiting to see the headliners do their thing.
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All star shows and tours are a hot or miss proposition. It’s possible that what on paper looks like a dream line up simply, for whatever reason, does not work in practice. But with Austin’s impish grin and mischievous spirit at the heart any doubts were quickly dismissed by the end of the first song.
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Husband and wife duo of Jenny Keel on stand up bass and flat picking guitar virtuoso Larry Keel showed once again why their harmonious union extends throughout every facet of their lives. Tapping into the rare, effortless interplay the couple shares gave Austin a certainty that few full bands could ever hope to know, and through Larry’s speedy picking style a foil for Jeff’s own fretboard fireworks.
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Picking on a five string banjo and flanking Austin musically on stage left was Danny Barnes, singer, multi instrumentalist and stellar songwriter. Though he has a fine voice and is capable of picking lines on banjo and guitar that show equal parts heart and dexterity, Barnes primary weapon is his songwriting. Mixing a skewed lyrical outlook his songs have become staples to many acts, and one, the foreboding “Rag Doll” became part of the evening’s signature moment.
Though “Rag Doll” has become a staple of Yonder shows, this performance took a darker twist…all the way into a segue into the Grateful’s Dead’s “Dark Star.” Ebbing from the middle section of “Rag Doll” Austin and Friends took the tune into a dark instrumental break,lulling the crowd into a appreciative trance until the strains of the Dead classic became apparent to the thrill of the blissful listeners. After running through the verses and chorus they ably tackled the instrumental break of “Dark Star” ingeniously transposing the original instrumentation to a bluegrass framework, somehow never losing the dense psychedelic groove, before rounding back into the finale of “Rag Doll” to the most overwhelming reaction of the night from the delighted audience.
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Much has been made of Austin’s brand of showmanship, from his wild strides to the mike to the twisted expressions that have earned their own Facebook page, but the true reason for his status a a fan favorite, his immense focus and fiery displays of unbridled spirit were front and center throughout the night.  It’s been said that a performer should always leave a crowd wanting more, and that’s what Austin and his friends did…breathing heavily, soaked in sweat and visibly spent, a reflection of the shell shocked, blinking audience.   Jeff Austin’s renown has come hard earned through relentless years of touring, practice and crowd pleasing performances. But standing on a still echoing stage in front of a hall full of appreciative faces he seemed humbled, eyes looking down at the stage in a quick moment of humility before darting back up again with the devilish smile of childlike zeal.
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Words and photos by Rex Thomson Rex-A-Vision Photography