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Jeff Austin 1974 – 2019 (Travels with Jeff)

July 4, 2019 1 comment

* Editor’s Note: There won’t be much wine in this geist.

My dear friend, Jeff Austin, is gone.

Jeff & me 2003

I’m still processing, though the news cycle has moved on, but I also need to write some things down. This is how I used to process everything, before I sold booze for a living, back when people would pay me for words. It used to be a whole industry, before they started calling it user-generated content, and settled on shittier copy for free. You get what you pay for. I used to write a lot, as did my friend, Jeff, often in the same place and time. I recall a time high on a hilltop, above Nederland, CO, pounding away on my laptop (and wrestling with Sawyer the dog) on Jeff’s living room floor, while he and Todd Snider worked out some tunes.

I like Todd a lot, but he never remembers me. The third time we all hung out together was on the front couch of somebody’s tour bus outside a theater in the south (maybe the Ryman, maybe the Fox?) that one or both had just played. Todd introduced himself to me, so I reminded him of the living room writing session, and another solid hang in between. I told him, “no worries, I get it, songwriters only remember chicks and guitar players.” Without missing a beat, Todd replied, “I don’t much remember guitar players.”

Jeff Austin was one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and unlike Jeff, I’ve never had a lot of them, at any one time. I don’t entirely know the details, but I know that he is gone, and I am currently a 6’3” raw nerve in a hail storm. He had so long since survived his hard coke days, and the rehab that followed. It had been a decade since I had seen him consume to excess, and I never saw this coming.

Jeff and I certainly had some hard days, nights, and weeks of mass consumption, but the last decade or so, our parties usually involved fairly lavish meals, and reasonable bedtimes. Jeff worked much of his early work life in kitchens and food service, and became a true gourmand and a highly skilled home cook. He used to work at the deli in Nederland when he was off the road with Yonder, not because he needed the money, but because he enjoyed the work.

Chef Park’s Wagyu Carpaccio

Our youthful Vegas trips, filled with drugs and strippers (long before his marriage), quickly turned into long slow evenings of 12+ course dining events and rare Chambertin at profound eateries, most notably and often, Joel de Robuchon’s L’Atelier at the MGM. Those meals were rivaled by equally decadent, though more rustic and relaxed NY dining expereinces at Chef Park’s counter, at Bistro Petit. The visceral joy we shared at those counters, watching the deep effortless artistry that occurred in the open kitchens, reverberates through my brainstem even now.

I met Jeff and the other founding members of Yonder Mountain String Band when that scraggly bunch of skinny kids (and one full size acoustic bass) spilled out of a stuffed white minivan, onto a soggy festival field in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. It was the 3rd year of the Big Wu’s Family Reunion. Jeff was a human rubber band of life lust, Ben soft-spoken and joyfully reverent, Dave was reading The Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich, and I thought that Adam hated me, but it turned out he’s a profoundly dry wit, moored to a stoic anchor. And man could those kids pick. That drive without drums was riveting. Through the course of that wonderful weekend, Jeff and I found ourselves in the same place and time, over and over again, and by the time those four packed back into the minivan, we were fast friends. Swimming in similar circles for then next few years, I crossed paths with Jeff and the Yonder crew frequently, both happenstance and planned.

Jeff & I once spent a couple of days looking at houses outside of Nashville, with the intent to buy, and we joked about being hetero-life-partners. And there was always music! Everywhere we went, we were always comparing notes on what we were discovering and exploring. Jeff turned me on to the Louvin Brothers, I turned him on to Yo La Tengo. Driving west from Colorado to Las Vegas once, listening to Ben Folds’ then recent release, Rockin’ the Suburbs, Jeff said, more than slightly enviously, “That guy holds the patent on every hook in the universe.”

It wasn’t long into our friendship that the Yonder van rolled up to Berkfest, and I spent much of that weekend careening

Jeff holding church in 2006

through forest and field with Jeff, his mandolin, and the Devil (a tiny, sweet, cherubic blond with a magical sack full of trouble), stopping at tents and camp sites to pick and partake. At some point during the weekend I arrived (just as Jeff, Dave, Ben, and Adam walked up) at the tented, elevated platform that served as the festival stage’s indoor/outdoor green room. At this time in my life, I was respectful (and naïve) enough to believe the sign reading ‘Yonder Mountain String Band and family’ meant the band and blood relatives, as opposed to ‘family’ in the Dead sense of the word. I was talking with Jeff as he headed up the stairs, and then he turned back toward me, noticing that I had stopped at the sign. He shot me an incredulous little smile, “what are you doing? You’re family.” It’s hard to explain how much that meant to me then, and how much it still means to me now, but it has been a long time since anybody paid me for words, and I’m a little rusty.

During those years, as a Hunter Thompson disciple, I was practicing the self-indulgent art of getting away with it, which is what Thompson said of writing for a living. In our travels, and occasionally from stage, Jeff would refer to me as his lawyer (though which of us was Dr. Gonzo was always in question), and I in turn would offer life and professional advice. My cartoonish tone would indicate whether it was a deliberately awful idea, or an actual moment of reason. Considering our individual self-destructive tendencies, we were more often than not, a centering influence on each other, which is why I feel such an abject failure now.

Through my freelance years, during which we both traveled extensively, I had more world-class times with Jeff Austin, in more cities and festival fields than I can count or detail. When he first started attaining real material success, he was proud of the pull he could muster and came to New York to join me for two consecutive small venue Jeff Tweedy shows- for which he had excellent seats awaiting us. We had a blast. And I was proud of what my friend had built, from nothing, with his buddies and his bare picking hand. Over the years, my own fortunes ebbed and flowed, while for many consecutive, Jeff’s were on a steady constant rise. Through my leaner years, he always picked up the check, without

Wrigley Field 2007

saying anything about it.

I once had the ill-conceived idea to join my friends Jeff, Ben, Dave, and Adam, on Yonder Mountain’s Europe tour, and shoot a feature on spec. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and then there was radio silence from Yonder’s then manager for a very long time. The project was going to be scrapped completely, until Jeff stepped in and insisted that my feature accompany the next Mountain Tracks (4) live release, as a CD/DVD combo. When the dust settled, and the cash was counted, I was repaid what I had spent on production and travel, and a (tiny) little bit on top. How many filmmakers can say that they turned a profit on their first feature (using the term loosely, as it’s my only feature)? The only reason I can say that is Jeff Austin.

It was also on that trip, that for 11 Euro each, at a picnic table full of Yonder cast and crew, we shared one of the most profoundly fulfilling meals of our lives, outside the otherwise sold-out tiny village dining room, two towns down the road from the American country music festival the fellas were playing in rural France. Many of the festival’s patrons didn’t speak a word of English, but they did line dance in tasseled leather, and wide-brim hats. If I could make this shit up, I’d be a better writer.

Our times were always music and food centric. But few things will ever beat the profound simplicity of those freshly picked wild morels, sautéed in butter, in a heavy skillet, over an outdoor hearth on the edge of Yellowstone. Was that before, during, or after Sandy and Stella’s wedding, Jeff?

Jeff wasn’t perfect. He once caused a huge rift between my girlfriend and I, after curtly dismissing discussion of her music (she is a classically trained string player, and a founding member of an indy band, with a couple of solid records). But she eventually threw me out, in the middle of the night, for something I didn’t do, and Jeff would always take my calls in the middle of the night, so it’s tough to hold that one- or any other- against him.

In an interview once, Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon, told me with a reverent chuckle, “On stage, Jeff is a freight train.” Hunter Thompson often said that you know who your friends are at 3 o’clock in the morning. Jeff Austin was a freight train, who would take my call at 3 o’clock in the morning. There is no replacing that. My world is a much smaller place for his absence, and I will miss him as long as I breathe, but I will be listening to his music, and recalling our adventures, fondly for the rest of my life. And you should too.

If you’d like to help out Jeff Austin’s wife and kids, you can do that HERE.

Rosenblum Zinfandel Sauret Vineyard 1997 and Jeff Tweedy vs. The Black Eyed Peas

September 22, 2011 1 comment

While sipping this remarkable 1997 Rosenblum Zin Sauret, I ponder many a past philosophical throw-down over the aging capacity of CA old vine zinfandel. There is certainly validity to the opinion that even a full-bodied concentrated zin loses certain attributes, even when significantly gaining in integration and the secondary and tertiary flavors that emerge with bottle age. Still, when any winemaker (or distributor) tells me that their brand new monster red is meant to drink young, I have to assume that their number one priority is selling through the vintage before the next release. And there is simply no full-bodied red wine that won’t benefit from at least a year in bottle. Anyone who says differently is well… selling something. That being said, I enjoyed the banter as much as the wine while recently tasting Victor Abascal’s Zin-forward blend, Marycrest My Generation ’07. And I have to respect a wine named with Pete Townshend lyrics. Does Pete see any of the proceeds?

Langerado 2005

I’m watching and listening to Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) do a Black Eyed Peas tune in a YouTube video, a link that was sent over by dear friend and major Tweedy-head, Jeff Austin (of Yonder Mountain String Band). The discrepancy between the sincerity of Tweedy’s own song-writing and the producer-constructed schlock for which the Peas are known, puts this clip high on my list of nominations for the 2011 Irony Awards. In reference to “I Got a FeelingTweedy says, “They have like a million lyrics, each one of them is like four pages long.” The subtext, of course, being that each lyric is more gratuitous and meaningless than the last, but his subtle way of explaining that, while playing the godawful thing, is far more satisfying than my meat-hook truth analysis. The Peas and their pushers are marketing geniuses and one simply cannot be a Bar Mitzvah DJ without owning that record. Mazel Tov to the sales team! Jeff Tweedy’s work is so deeply enjoyable and that of the Crap Eyed Sleaze so thoroughly loathsome that while watching this amazing clip, I believe at least part of my brain stem may have prolapsed.

At this point in its life, the ’97 Rosenblum Zinfandel Sauret Vineyard is drinking more like a subtly stunning pinot 2/3rd its actual age. It is deep, but wholly translucent ruby, in the glass, yellowing ever so slightly at the very rim. While much of its original weight has been aged away, there is still quite a bit going on here, pound for pound. The wine is soft and round, with swirling red fruit, speckled with moments of clove, cumin, and cinnamon. There’s good length, nice acidity and just a hint of unsweetened peppermint nearing the end of the tapering finish. Along with the dominant raspberry and red cherry, there exists here, to a much lesser degree, but undeniably present, boysenberry. It shows a distinct beauty, but also a coy subtly which is contrary to the kind of women I tend to date. With a nose of said red fruit over raw meat, the ’97 Rosenblum Zin Sauret is impressively complex for its weight, and is a prime example of the rewards awaiting those who “risk” aging such bottles. And in deference to those who prefer a bigger, fruit forward version, I can attest to the qualities of this same wine in its youth. If you can find them, a ’97 vs. ’07 tasting of this label would greatly expand one’s understanding of this wonderful CA varietal, of which Rosenblum bottles many of the finest, per dollar spent.

T-Vine Zinfandel Napa 1999 and Songs from the Tin Shed (Tasting on Shuffle Pt. 4)

July 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Bottle shown here is 2008.

T-Vine Zinfandel Napa 1999 was the next in the ever darkening wine lineup. This one is fairly big and is ideally suited for the rich [Bedford] cheese [Shop] plate, also standing its ground against the accompanying cured and thinly sliced meats. First, a vintage note: 1999 is an underrated vintage for much of CA (as well as for Bordeaux). So many different varieties of wines originating from Santa Barbara to Bolinas are fairing far better than their ’98 and ’00 counterparts and represent a significant value over the much hyped (and excellent) ’97 and ‘01/’02 vintages flanking them. As for Bordeaux, 1999 represents the last solid vintage to still occasionally be available at a significant price break from every vintage that has come since (minus the much maligned 2002), and they are aging beautifully.

Up on the itunes, the shuffle finds our ears flooded with the twangy strings and lush harmonies of Jeff Austin (Yonder Mountain String Band) & Chris Castino‘s (The Big Wu) Songs From the Tin Shed (2004), from the pre-master recording. The music ranges from Sad Cowboy to Hillbilly, the tone from wistful to joyous, and includes a small handful of well placed covers amongst the majority original tunes by Austin and Castino. While Songs From the Tin Shed is far less known than the records (and live shows) of Yonder Mountain String Band or The Big Wu, the quality of its execution and heights of its sincerity will continue find its way to and delight ears- with a propensity toward twang- for generations.

Back to our regularly scheduled program:
T-Vine Napa Zinfandel 1999 is toward the shallow end of full bodied in color with a broad mouthfeel and long lingering acidity. There’s a piney sweetness and something ruggedly floral, like the unlikely offspring of a honeysuckle and some mutant wild thistle. This wine both grows in depth and softens in mouthfeel as another hour of air expands its horizons. T-Vine continues to quietly make very serious small batch wine in a number of varietals, both blends and single vineyards, including the recent addition of a Grenache from the incomparable Paras Vineyard. If you have not already, T-Vines is highly worth looking (and tasting!) into.