Jeff Austin brings Friends to Denver

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Jeff Austin and Friends
Bluebird Theater
Denver, Colorado
March 14, 2009

This time each year, Yonder Mountain String Band embarks on their annual Cabin Fever tour, spreading their feel-good brand of jamgrass across the states.  This year, the band has taken a short break from this stretch to deal with some family issues, which gave mandolin player and front man Jeff Austin the chance to gather some of his merry local yokels and perform a few concerts in his home base of Colorado.

The shows, billed as Jeff Austin & Friends, paraded the collective through a weekend of Front Range performances at the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins, the Fox Theater in Boulder, and the Bluebird Theater in Denver.

Jeff&Friends-2009-03-14_014.jpgThis project was comprised of a handful of top-notch musicians best suited to play Austin’s high-energy originals and old bluegrass favorites.  On one side was Danny Barnes, an accomplished Seattle-based banjo player and vocalist who has performed with artists ranging from Bela Fleck to the Dave Matthews Band.  On his other side stood Eric Thorin, a Colorado native bass player who as of late been touring and recording with The Drew Emmitt Band.

Rounding out the quartet was none other than String Cheese Incident co-founder Billy Nershi. Not only isl Nershi an accomplished guitar player, but he just happens to be Austin’s neighbor in the small mountain town near Boulder they call home.  The two have frequently played with each other, so it only seemed fitting to have Billy tag along for this project as well.

Cabin fever has not been a big issue for folks living in the Front Range areas of Colorado this winter, as they are enjoying a warmer than usual season.  Such was the case on the night of Austin & Friends’ Denver performance at the Bluebird, where temperatures held in the high-50s during show time.  Parkas and hoodies were left at home as fans packed the house in anticipation of these hometown heroes.  Even in an anemic economy, enough people snatched up tickets to sell out this moderately-sized venue and raised the energy inside the theater to a high level. 

Jeff&Friends-2009-03-14_022.jpgThose who arrived early were treated to a short but pleasing set by one of Yonder’s iconic collaborators, Benny Galloway.  The rugged folk musician breezed through tunes such as "Waiting on the Wind," "One of a Kind" and "Me and You" before he was joined on stage by Jeff Austin for a rendition of "Sugartown."

Supposedly the other headlining members couldn’t resist playing with Galloway either as they then entered to help the two through versions of "Poor Boy’s Delight," "Back of My Mind" and others.  It retrospect it appeared as if this was more of a three-set evening, which excited everyone in attendance.

Jeff&Friends-2009-03-14_037.jpgAfter an extended break and stage shuffle, Austin and his boys returned to the stage to begin their first solid set of the night.  As expected the group ran through a gamut of old cover songs and a few original tunes.  Traditional bluegrass favorites such as the Stanley Brothers’ "East Virginia Blues" and Bill Monroe’s "Old Home Town" had folks smiling and chatting up a storm.

Other highlights from the first set included an interesting but appropriate take on the Tom Waits song "Heart of Saturday Night," as well as some tunes that frequently make their way into Yonder Mountain set lists such as "Rag Doll" and "Little Rabbit."

The group wrapped up the first set with a remarkably beautiful "Jesus Grant Me Mercy," which featured Austin’s exceptional mandolin work and Nershi’s haunting lap steel guitar.  It eventually led into an older favorite from the String Cheese Incident catalog, "Jellyfish."  Nershi led the band through this bizarre rap-ditty, which found the band performing improvised sections while Billy free-formed silly lyrics about Galloway’s guitar Alice.

Shortly after midnight the band returned for their final set of the evening.  They came back a little more loose and playful, bouncing around on stage while performing "Looking for Air," "Life in the Country" and the Emmitt-Nershi Band staple "Love is Like a Train."

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The set continued with excellent renditions of "The Difference Between You and Me," "Darling One," "Get it While You Can" and "Evening Train," a song popularized by Johnny Cash.  As not to be outdone by their more popular counterparts, bassist Eric Thorin and banjo man Danny Barnes let their exceptional chops shine throughout these choice tunes.

Jeff&Friends-2009-03-14_054.jpgWith the evening curfew looming, the band completed the set and quickly returned to the stage for a couple of encore songs.  The first was a cover of Merle Haggard’s ballad "Sing Me Back Home," which segued into a newer Austin original "Illinois Rain." The Midwest state – Austin hails from the Chicago area – is well-known for its terrific thunderstorms, and this song was performed with just as much energy and force.

It was another fine evening of folk and bluegrass, and judging by the overwhelming response during the show it was doubtful anyone left disappointed.  It is an absolutle treat for Coloradans to have so many talented musicians not only passing through town on a nightly basis, but also setting up shop and calling it home.  The stunning beauty and relentless nightlife draws so many people; it is no wonder musicians adore playing and performing here.  You can see it, hear it, and feel it at each show.  The high-altitude energy is ever present, and this performance was another indication of just that.

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