Jeff Austin is a man shrouded in controversy. In April of 2014, the mandolin maestro shocked jam band and bluegrass fans all over the country when he mysteriously decided to leave popular jam-grass group Yonder Mountain String Band, an outfit that he founded and fronted for nearly 16 years.
Almost immediately after his departure from Yonder Mountain, Austin started his own solo band and began touring the country relentlessly. However, his new group has hit several bumps in the road. Austin has had trouble holding together a steady lineup within his band and this has caused many live shows to lack cohesiveness. Simply, new band members have been struggling to keep up with Austin onstage. Austin has also had trouble filling venues he once packed effortlessly with Yonder Mountain and his name has quickly fallen to the bottom of festival lineups across the country.
On April 4, 2016, billed as an after party for the Lupulin Beer Carnival at 4 Hands Brewing Company, Austin and his band took the stage at the Old Rock House in downtown St. Louis. Surprisingly, his performance lacked the feeling of a failing bluegrass band. From the moment they took the stage, Austin was hard at work, attempting to rekindle the vibe that was once prevalent at his shows with Yonder Mountain.
During the first set, Austin seemed to alternate between old material and new material as a way of keeping the crowd singing along and interested. He would play a classic Yonder Mountain sing along and then segue into something off of his latest release, The Simple Truth. He even slipped a funky and jammed out version of Jerry Garcia’s gospel-rock classic “My Sisters and My Brothers” into the set.
Set two was where the band really started gaining momentum in terms of jamming. Roughly halfway through the set, Austin led the band into a soulful rendition of “Rag Doll”, a song of his that was a staple at Yonder Mountain concerts. The song slowly transitioned into a spacey jam that felt like it would have been impossible to produce with just an acoustic guitar, bass, mandolin, and banjo. As the space began to dissolve, Austin fiercely launched into the jam vehicle “Snow On the Pines”, which was kept fast until about the 10-minute mark of the jam. The band then transitioned into the slow river tune “Natchez Whistle”, perhaps as a nod to the song’s author and St. Louis native, John Hartford. As “Natchez Whistle” came to a close, Austin quickly burst back into “Snow On the Pines” and during this segment, something amazing happened.
The song has a short section where it gradually slows down into silence before picking back up again and during this silence, the small venue erupted with cheers and clapping that one would have thought were coming from a much larger club. Austin was clearly taken aback by this as his eyes widened and began watering. He slowly approached the microphone and struggled to sing the next line of the song. After stepping back for a moment he fought the tears and mustered whatever he needed to start the tune back up. Finally, with more emotion than any other performer I’ve seen, Austin led the band back into “Rag Doll”. Upon concluding the song, Austin began to tear up again. He simply stepped up to the microphone, battled back the tears, and thanked the crowd for a feeling that he said, “Moved him to his very core.”
In April of 2014, Austin left behind a career that took him 16 years to build. He’s essentially had to start a band from scratch and I’m sure it took a toll on Austin to lose all he had created. However, the audience and Austin’s actions and reactions on this St. Louis Saturday show us that he is moving in the right direction, and he is on the way to regaining his position as a top tier musician in the jam band and bluegrass communities.