Words and Photos by Bradley Darby
When it was announced that there would be a two day bluegrass concert, and that mandolin players Jeff Austin from the Yonder Mountain String Band and Drew Emmitt from Emmitt-Nershi Band would be sitting in with Head for the Hills (Saturday) and the The Travelin’ McCourys (Sunday), well it was certain that this was a don’t miss Bluegrass Ball. Then to make it better, days before the show they announced that the lovely and talented Allie Kral from Cornmeal would be joining on the fiddle as well. This was a rather limited event as it was only a four day run, featuring two nights at The Abbey in Chicago and two nights at Old Rock House here in St. Louis.
Sunday nights lineup featured Head for the Hills first. The previous night the order was reversed, so the Travelin’ McCourys played first, well you see where I am going. Head for the Hills are a bluegrass quartet from Colorado consisting of Adam Kinghorn on banjo and guitar, Joe Lessard on fiddle, Matt Loewen on bass, and Mike Chappel on the mandolin. They played for just under an hour and did a great job with tunes such as Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, “Love Please Come Home” and others.
After a short break The Travelin’ McCourys started things off with a traditional bluegrass instrumental. You may know the name McCoury from bluegrass legend Del McCoury, well the Travelin McCourys actually comprise of four of the five members of the Del McCoury Band. The Travelin’ McCourys feature Del’s sons Ronnie and Rob McCoury on the mandolin and banjo respectively, as well as Jason Carter on fiddle, and Alan Bartram on the upright bass. When touring as The Travelin’ McCourys, Cody Kilby fills in for Del on the acoustic guitar, who is best known for playing with Ricky Skaggs.
The McCoury boys did their thing for about an hour and their set featured “Hard on my Heart”, “Devil in Disguise” and “Body and Soul” as well as a Jimmy Martin cover “Hold Watcha Got.” They dedicated the set to Del McCoury and said “he’s an idol and role model to some of us and a dad to others.” At around 9:45 they said they would be playing one final song, and then they were going to bring some friends out to get the Bluegrass Ball underway.
After a 20 minute break, The Travelin McCourys came back out and kicked things off by introducing Allie Kral from Cornmeal to kick the party off, ladies first of course. Together they jammed out a little instrumental that was heavy on the dueling fiddles courtesy of Kral and Jason Carter. When the smoke cleared, Ronnie McCoury introduced the final two gentlemen who were patiently waiting their turn to slay dragons with their mandolins, Jeff Austin from the Yonder Mountain String Band and Drew Emmitt from the Emmitt-Nershi Band.
Austin started things off with “Wheelhouse”, a Danny Barnes song. Then another traditional that showcased Rob McCourys banjo. They then played “Fiddling Around” a song that was made famous by Dierks Bentley on his most recent album. After a few more songs, Austin thanked the rest of the Bluegrass Ball and the crowd for “giving me a trip I will never remember!” Then he asked the crowd for some requests and they broke into a John Hartford song, followed by some Hank Williams.
The entire time it was Ronnie McCoury, Jeff Austin, Drew Emmitt on mandolins, Rob McCoury on banjo, Jason Carter and Allie Kral shredding the fiddle, Alan Bartram on upright bass, and Cody Kilby on guitar feeding off of each other. Just watching the eight of them together was something special. Where else are you going to see two fiddles, three mandolins, an upright bass, a banjo, and a guitar all picking on some bluegrass tunes together while a packed house that included Beatle Bob looked on?
Then everyone except the three guys with the funny looking little guitars took a break and Emmitt, Austin and McCoury, who actually switched to a mandola, took over for three songs including another song written by Danny Barnes, “Death Trip”, a song frequently played by Yonder Mountain String Band. They then pretended to leave the stage but were quickly joined by the rest of the Bluegrass Ball for “Steam Powered Aeroplane”, another John Hartford song.
You figured that would be the end up the evening, but they actually brought out the four guys from Head for the Hills and again thanked the crowd for giving them “four days we will never forget.” Jeff Austin then introduced the final song of the night, “Fire On The Mountain” but Austin quickly said that it was “not the one you are thinking of” but dedicated it to Owsley Stanley and together the 12 of them played the old traditional bluegrass tune featuring the lyrics “Fire on the mountain, run boy run!” while the folks holding string instruments bitch slapped you with their bluegrass.
All in all the night was a raging success. The crowd was pleased, and from what i gathered from folks that had attended both shows, it was a satisfactory weekend. I only wish I had been able to attend both nights, but this was a night I will never forget, or as Jeff Austin said, I will never remember.