We’d like to welcome Rex Thomson, aka Rex-A-Vision, a senior contributing writer for our friends at Honest Tune, to review a recent The Bluegrass Ball performance as well as share his photos and video. Hopefully this will be the first of many Rex-A-Vision articles on HT.
Words, Photos & Video: Rex Thomson
Taking a tip from the Beatles, The Travelin’ McCourys launched their recent tour, The Bluegrass Ball at The Bluebird in Bloomington, Indiana with a little help from their friends. And when those friends happen to be Jeff Austin, mandolin player for the Yonder Mountain String Band and Billy Nershi, guitarist from the String Cheese Incident, one thing’s for certain; there’s some mighty fine picking and grinning on the way.
[All Photos by Rex Thomson]
Made up of bluegrass legend Del McCoury’s backing band, featuring Del’s sons Robbie and Ronnie on banjo and mandolin respectively, The Travelin’ McCourys have struck out as their own entity at the senior McCoury’s urgings. Over the last three years the band has welcomed an amazing procession of talent and collaborators to their fold, from Dan Tyminski to Allie Kral, and even recorded an entire album of songs with gospel jammers The Lee Boys. Last year saw their first run of shows under the “Bluegrass Ball” title, a special series of shows featuring high powered accompanists which vary due to availability with the unifying thread of insane talent.
The Bluebird Theater, nestled scant blocks away from Indiana University’s campus was a perfect choice to start the tour as it boasts a local fan base, amazing lights and sound and multiple viewing tiers to give everone a chance to watch the action. With a strong local bluegrass scene, this edition of The Bluegrass Ball was able to have a pair of stellar local acts to get the party started off in fine style. Both the White Lightning Boys and The New Old Cavalry feature players from the city and the surrounding regions, acts which harken to the finest traditions of the form. The White Lightning Boys are steeped in the old school orchestra approach, featuring a large cast of players creating a lush wall of strummed and pick instruments. Such ensembles can sometimes become discordant and tangled musically, but under the leadership of mandolin player and vocalist Barry Elkins, the band manages to retain a smooth, rich sound that can lull you into a reverie then shake you up with their frentic jamming.
The New Old Cavalry played three in between sets in the entranceway to the club, embracing the time honored roots tradition of the single microphone for vocals and picking. This young quintet brings modern touches to the stage, featuring near psychedelic jams and trancey, jazzy explorations that seem to grow organicly out of their original compositions and cover tunes. Not ones to shy away from new ideas, The New Old Cavalry rides their own path, managing to honor tradition but write original chapters in the annals of Bluegrass.
When the Travelin’ McCoury’s took the stage, they were greeted by a warmed up and rabid audience ready for something special. While ouside the venue temperatures dropped and a winter storm coated every nearby building, car and tree with a thick sheath of ice, inside fiery licks and red hot jams were causing the mercury to boil. The first set featured Billy Nershi on guitar, and wandered through a selection of standards, Travelin’ McCoury originals and even a String Cheese song or two.
Fiddle player Jason Carter showed off his impressive chops, sawing away and even bringing out his rich tenor voice for a song or two. Alan Bartram, whose fold up double bass was the subject of much envy from the other stand up players, showed why he was hand picked by Del McCoury for his band with a strong lead and a voice well suited to bluegrass. Robbie McCoury stepped to the fore repeatedly, making his five string banjo smoke with the speed and precision he posseses. Elder brother Ronnie McCoury displayed all of the mandolin prowess that has earned him accolades, awards and the respect of all hs peers. The weaving in and out of the players, the selfless sharing of the spotlight showed a true dedication to the song above their own personal egos.
Bringing two of the biggest names in the modern “Jam-Grass” scene along with them could easily turn the Travelin’ McCourys into supporting players on their own stage, bt throughout the first set Nershi fit himself in perfectly as a part of the cast, not the star. Jeff Austin joined the group for the second set, and, though his large personality and expressive front man antics are ingrained in him to his core, he still performed as a part of the musical engine that drove the night to new heights.
Starting off with an intense mandolin duel with Ronnie McCoury that showcased the different, but complimentary, styles Austin’s presence elevated the players energies to new heights. Working in a Yonder tune or two, a rousing cover of String Cheese’s Jellyfish (Featured above) and a monsterously huge, show closing Death Trip, the ad hoc band made this three show run something for the history books. The plan is for the The Travelin’ McCoury boys to recreate these events off and on through out the year, and it shod be considered a “Don’t Miss” show for any fans of bluegrass or just plain fun music!
Here’s a full gallery of Rex’s photos…