By: Bill Clifford
Yonder Mountain String Band is a modern day DIY success story that any aspiring musician, regardless of genre, would be wise to model their own career trajectory after. The Colorado based quartet has been writing, recording and releasing its music via its own record label since its 1999 debut, Elevation,. The band has built its reputation and fan base as a touring stalwart, crisscrossing the globe, performing as a headlining act or at any festival that would have them.
The band has jumped on a bandwagon of artists releasing high quality concert recordings and profiting rather than losing sales to peer-to-peer websites, where such recordings are traded freely. What YMSB is doing differently is using these live CDs to release new music, as opposed to just issuing live renditions of previous studio recordings. It's a concept that follows the band's premise to not play the same setlist twice. Hence, fans get YMSB music they don't already have in their collection.
Mountain Tracks: Volume 5 is a double disc set, with disc one a compilation of live tracks recorded between 2004 and 2007. While the gap time between songs is minimal, several times on disc one, you hear, at the end of a track, an introduction to another song that doesn't follow in sequence. Nonetheless, the thirteen cuts are all representative of the band's high-energy performances and tight musicianship. Highlights include opener "Sideshow Blues," one of several songs written or co-written by Nashville songwriter Todd Snider, which features super fast picking by Jeff Austin (mandolin) and on Dave Johnston. (banjo). Upright bassist Ben Kaufmann's lovelorn heartache ballad "Must Have Had Your Reasons" is a nice change of pace, and of the four, his vocals the most pristine. Austin's "Southbound" was co-written with Benny "Burle" Galloway and is a fine road song that will certainly get feet shuffling, while the disc closing "Ten" is a long and highly improvisational jam that takes the road song meandering in an entirely different direction.
Disc two is a complete set, recorded on July 21, 2007, in Columbus, Ohio. It opens with Austin's crowd banter, "Well, why not? Let's go as those clouds get more purple," referring to growing cumulus above them that day. The "New Horizons > East Nashville Easter > New Horizons" sandwich is an upbeat foot-stomper with beautiful vocal harmonies and interplay between guitarist Adam Aijala and Johnston's banjo, as well as an upright bass solo. "New Horizons" details a farming family's flight from a disparaging but much needed flood in a drought-afflicted town, and touches on the uncertainty of when they'll be able to return. This is the kind of balls-out jam that made a Yonder fan of this critic and is worth the cost of the two disc set alone. The band's take on Bill Monroe's "Kentucky Mandolin" is as fine a tribute to the bluegrass legend as you'll find anywhere. If the back and forth picking between Johnston and Austin doesn't kick up the dirt below your feet then nothing will. Smartly, they close with two upbeat, lengthy, improvisational jams. Again, Kaufmann proves to be the most eloquent vocalist on "Looking Back Over My Shoulder," with three gorgeous solos placed mid-song by all Austin, Aijala and Johnston respectively. It's followed by the much darker but still rollicking "Death Trip," featuring lush acoustic fingerpicking by Johnston.
For the uninitiated, Mountain Tracks: Volume 5 is a fine introduction to YMSB. If you're already a fan, it's a must have addition to your collection.
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