Words by: Nick Boeka | Images by: Arthur Shim
Yonder Mountain String Band :: 04.18.08 :: Warfield Theatre :: San Francisco, CA
It had been six years since Yonder Mountain String Band played at San Francisco's Warfield, usually performing at The Fillmore instead. And the cherry on top for this grand return was drummer Jon Fishman (Phish) joining the band on this bill.
The Yonder boys entered to a screaming crowd after a formal introduction from off stage. A YMSB show is always a nonstop, foot stompin', butt shakin', hillbilly throw down. I knew it was bullshit when mandolin player and frontman Jeff Austin tried to assure us that he wasn't going to talk much. He never can live up to that promise, and three songs in the banter took over. That's the experience we really want, though. I don't want to be asked how I'm feeling or be told to do something every other song. Crack a joke or give me some background on the tune.
Halfway through the first set, the band really started to find their rhythm and during "Fastball," which transitioned into "Looking Back Over My Shoulder," the sound and lights were dialed in and people were getting down. The beautiful and historic room was filled easily by the technical prowess of Dave Johnson's banjo and Adam Aijala's guitar. While each member has their core strength, bassist Ben Kaufmann, in my humble opinion, produces the best vocals in the band. I think that Austin is a fantastic performer, lyricist and songwriter, but the ease and beauty with which Kaufmann sings lead is special.
As the set drew to a close, the "greasy troll" himself, Jon Fishman emerged from stage right, quickly taking his kit and throwing the band into a jam that immediately sounded similar to his work with great mandolinist Jamie Masefield of the Jazz Mandolin Project. Now, I'm probably going to offend many bluegrass diehards and Yonder traditionalists, but Yonder with drums is so much sharper than Yonder with no drums. As soon as the song began the band snapped into a tighter space and was able to actually play less but create more. The set closing "Steep Grade Sharp Curves" primed everyone for what was to come with the second set. What amazed me was how well the band and Fishman were playing together despite their limited prior playing time.
There began the night of my life with the cheap cocaine and neon lights
My vision, my lungs, and reality blurred, no heaven or hell, no wrong or right
Stuck my face to her hands and kissed me like never before
Said do what you want, but don't you dare leave me tonight
With the set break, we relocated our little party to the balcony, and when the lights dimmed, Fishman immediately came on with the band, and Austin declared they were going to play "until they shut the place down." The beginning of the set picked up where the first one left off, and the band was right back in the zone they had built before. After a few numbers, the band settled into "How Bout You," which showcased Kaufmann's vocals in the great melody lines bolstered by strong solos from Johnson and Austin.
They moved from song to song easily, having fun onstage. They even managed to make Fishman take a shot of Jagermeister, which he surprisingly looked pained to take down. As they segued into different songs, Fishman never lost the beat, proving that he still is the human drum machine; the ultimate pocket player.
Midway through the second set, Austin announced that the band was going to play a completely new song, a tribute to Frank Zappa, and I immediately shouted, "I Am The Slime," which was indeed the song they chose. Austin was just perfect as he sang the creepy lyrics that led to a ferocious, spaced-out jam section with Austin and Aijala using heavy effects, the former creating feedback loops a la Trey.
At evening's end, with Fishman back on stage, YMSB treated the pleased crowd to a double encore of "Catch A Criminal" and "Death Trip." Despite actually playing till they shut the place down, it was a long show that stretched past midnight that left the masses satiated.
04.18.08 :: Warfield Theater :: San Francisco
Set I: Out Of The Blue, Sidewalk Stars, Rain Still Falls, Don't You Lean On Me, Belle Parker, Fastball > Looking Back Over My Shoulder, Another Day, Half Moon Rising, Casualty, Wind's On Fire* > Robot Jam* > Steep Grade Sharp Curves*
Set II: Angel > Follow Me Down To The Riverside > Angel, How 'Bout You?, Fingerprint > Cuckoo's Nest, Fine Excuses, I Am The Slime, Southbound, Just The Same, If There's Still Ramblin' in the Rambler (Let Him Go) > Midwest Gospel Radio > East Nashville Easter > If There's Still Ramblin' in the Rambler (Let Him Go)
Encore: Catch A Criminal, Death Trip
* Jon Fishman on drums and he joined them for entire second set and encore.
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