The Travelin’ McCourys, The String Cheese Incident’s Billy Nershi and Jeff Austin Band kicked off The Road to DelFest mini-tour at the Brooklyn Bowl on March 4. The evening highlighted the strongpoints of each party: the McCourys’ vintage-flavored precision, Billy Nershi’s heartfelt songwriting (and goofy antics), and Jeff Austin’s improv-heavy intensity.
The music began with The Travelin’ McCourys alongside special guest Billy Nershi. It’s a collaboration that has been pickin’ around the country while the artist’s main projects are on hiatus. For Nershi, it means going back to his roots and playing bluegrass for 70 minutes straight, something the String Cheese Incident has evolved further away from in recent years.
While Del McCoury’s shoes are hard to fill, the McCourys didn’t slow down one bit with Nershi on guitar and vocals. As each member took turns singing a tune, mandolinist Ronnie McCoury took on his father’s “Deeper Shade of Blue” before Nershi led “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance.” Then fiddler Jason Carter piloted the crew in a cover of Doc Watson’s “Southbound” before banjo player Rob McCoury kicked off a shredding banjo tune. It was clear that, even while staying within the sphere of traditional bluegrass music, these players are capable of varied output.
Local Brooklynite Mike Barnett came out to join the band for a couple songs during the set. The fiddler, who lives with Yonder Mountain String Band’s current mandolinist Jake Jolliff, offered up some classically trained fiddling of a caliber that would make his fellow Berklee alumni more than proud. On “Wheel Hoss,” Barnett’s alternative medley breathed new life into a song that nearly every bluegrass outfit has taken a stab at.
Nershi led the Travelin’ McCourys in a “Colorado Bluebird Sky” before the set ultimately came to a close. As numerous String Cheese Incident shirts bobbed around to the Song In My Head tune, singing voices filled the air. The crowd was ecstatic to hear one of their favorite songs in this stripped-down, intimate rendition, and the Colorado anthem proved to be just as great of a closer for a bluegrass quintet in a bowling alley as it is for the jam titans at festivals across the country.
Jeff Austin has been a busy man since leaving Yonder Mountain String Band. He released The Simple Truth, which demonstrates the singer-songwriter’s ability to step away from progressive bluegrass music and into more accessible country sounds. He’s also been touring alongside a really great band that features Danny Barnes on banjo, Ross Martin on guitar and Eric Thorin on bass, which proves that he is still an absolute wrecking ball in the prog-bluegrass realm. On this night, the quartet seemed less interested in promoting the new album’s sound and more infatuated with pulling the threads of traditional bluegrass music apart in a way only possible if spearheaded by a massive fan of both the Grateful Dead and Phish.
“Raleigh and Spencer,” a Tim O’Brien tune that Yonder took in as their own, made an early appearance, jiving with fantastic solos from each member. While the McCourys take the traditional approach to bluegrass music, Jeff and co. really upped the ante in terms of intensity and stage presence. And despite the snow-slush that plagued NYC all night long, the crowd was going bonkers for Jeff Austin Band. A cover of the Chuck Berry-by-way-of-Grateful Dead tune “Promised Land” was a definitive highlight of the set before inviting the Travelin’ McCourys and Billy Nershi back out for a pickin’ party.
Nershi led the now-eight-piece bluegrass ensemble in the String Cheese Incident’s “Johnny Cash.” In between the players’ solos, Billy interjected with tongue-in-cheek lyrics that had Brooklyn smiling with glee. “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” the American traditional, would be the last hootenanny at a show that brought grade-A mountain music to the Big Apple.
Billed as The Road To DelFest, the show brought a small glimpse of what we can expect at the Cumberland, MD festival. While beautiful scenery and gorgeous weather will have to wait a couple months, bluegrass music and happy folks carried us halfway toward those summery vibes. In a city that has been covered in slush for the past few months, it went a long way. Warmer days are right around the corner everybody, hang in there!