Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Bill Ball
Yonder Mountain String Band :: 04.02.09 :: House of Blues :: Dallas, TX
Yonder Mountain String Band :: 04.03.09 :: Stubb's BBQ :: Austin, TX
Yonder Mountain String Band :: 04.04.09 :: House of Blues :: Houston, TX
I'm 750 miles through the Lone Star state in my 1997 Mazda Protégé, held together by bumper stickers, duct tape and the sheer grace of the Car Gods. Besides planning my future sacrifice at the altar of manual transmission, bar tabs, gas pumps and restaurant bills are adding up in my head, with blisters on my feet, an ache in my head and a hunger in my heart. My bones are grunting for some rest and my brain is popping with distillation, as asphalt, blue sky and fields of bluebonnets stretch out in front of me. But, as I'm barreling back towards Austin, back towards home, I wish I could turn around and do this all again. I don't want my portion of the tour to end. Yet, a satisfied smile as wide as that sky is spreading across my face, as this writer knows she's going to be happy to report that Yonder Mountain String Band are swinging strong. So, put trepidation to rest. Get ready to terrorize some dance floors, ride some front rails, punt some dust and cut a ruthless trail through the bars of this nation. With their good buddy Todd Snider along for the ride, providing opening support each night, these shows blazed bright through the heart of Texas, three definitive answers to our lingering questions.
House Of Blues :: Dallas :: 04.02.09
Somehow, I've gone my whole show going life without ever setting foot in a House of Blues. It does make it rather difficult to swallow the interior artwork's message of unity when you have to drink $4 bottles of water and security wands you with metal detectors outside. Once inside the HOB, stiletto, suits and BlackBerrys – welcome to Dallas, where the ghost of J.R. Ewing lives on – dotted the room with a few hippies and college-age guys. It was a surreal setting for Snider, but he held an attentive group at the front as folks trickled in. Underneath the smorgasbord of religious symbols strewn above the stage (who knew HOB was decorated by Unitarians?) Snider was a slacker poet savior, barefoot, stringy blond hair hanging in his face, blowing his harmonica and channeling some backstreets bluesy soul during opener "Slim Chance." Underneath that The Dude meets Mitch Hedberg exterior is a sharply tuned pair of eyes and a wit that holds the absurdities of this world up to the light. "Making money out of paper/ Making paper out of trees/ We're making so much money we can hardly breathe," he sings in "Stuck On the Corner (Prelude to a Heart Attack)." Damn straight. His voice is that of weirdos, losers, freaks and geeks, and if that ain't a shot of fresh air, I don't know what is. Throughout the run, Jeff Austin and then Ben Kaufmann joined Snider at about the mid-point of his set and the brotherhood was evident. In a moment of humble appreciation, Kaufmann put his bass down and simply sat to take in "Sunshine," a tune he later said he'd never got to see Snider perform live. Austin had earlier bounded on stage, clutching his mando in one hand, beaming to be playing with him. You couldn't help but give that feeling right back.
|Austin & Snider :: 04.02 :: Dallas |
The venue still seemed somewhat sparsely populated when Yonder began. "Out of the Blue" is always a strong choice for an opener, with the propulsion and tread to drive away those first minute dance jitters. A rare bust-out of Sean Camp's "Ain't No Way of Knowing," the always welcome "Fingerprint" and the lovely "Amanda Rose," where Adam Aijala taps Dylan's sad-eyed troubadour, brought us up to a buoyant "Jesus on the Mainline." Shaking the whoops and hollers out, that song is a consistent joy explosion. A fair number of bands can breathe kicking and screaming life into traditionals, but Yonder owns them to the point where they become their songs. That at times rough and tumble combo of bluegrass classics and contemporary rock songs that arm wrestle with their original work can become a potent cocktail, and if a few drops, or sometimes whole bottles, get spilled or flat out smashed in the process, well that's just par for the course. Get some mess on ya!
Snider joined the band for "Easy Money" and the grin-inducing "Don't It Make You Wanna Dance." The ending "New Horizon" > "Mother's Only Son" > "New Horizon" sandwich was cooking with gas, as Kaufmann drew out viscera tremors with this bow, Austin's mando slashed through the top of the skin, and in the reprise of "Horizon," Dave Johnston's and Aijala's picking punched with snappy side swipes.
|Johnston & Aijala :: 04.02 :: Dallas |
I slipped away from the rail to take care of some necessary set break activities, and found it relatively easy to make my way back to the front. Dallas on a Thursday night still hadn't produced the best showing audience-wise. Yes, they can sell out Red Rocks on their home turf, and can do multiple nights in other cities, but those rickety RV days are still implanted in this band's mind, and they came out for set two hungry to win the room - even if it was kind of a lame room. The kind of room that throws shit at a band, even if it's just a t-shirt, is still grounds for a well-deserved beat down. Aijala was visibly unimpressed when the yellow tie-dye came flying at him, and he kicked it disdainfully to the front of the stage. But, there was a good, strong group of kinfolk representing on the rail and ladies cutting a rug with "big Texas beers," as Austin pointed out.
I got some personal choice cuts in this set, including two favorites that debuted in '07 – Kaufmann's incendiary "Casualty" and Austin's "Belle Parker," which he co-wrote with Benny "Burle" Galloway, which swoons and flutters with a sweet mando roll and the line, "Tell me anything/ just tell me loud," being the clincher. "If Loving You Is Killing Me," is a song I've been dying to hear for a while, so count me one happy camper that I got to revel in that, and followed by the old timey swing of "Deep Pockets" it was a reminder that, as Kaufmann said prior to the song, "You know, we play bluegrass and every now and then we try to play it proper." That's the thing – they can play bluegrass nice n' proper when they want to. But, some of my favorite moments with this band are when they get freaky and EVIL. I like my bluegrass songs with body counts, and "Follow Me Down to the Riverside" is a nasty one. Austin's snaps and snarls during this song wield some psycho killer hardware, and sandwiched in the middle of speedometer pushing "Ten" and the strange strata and spaciousness of their cover of "Girlfriend Is Better," we drowned in delicious creepiness. This ending segue, which took a switchback to finish off with a reprised "Ten," soaked us with some potent proof - a biting, bucking beast.
During the spry encore of "Redbird," another Camp tune, I went to the back and discovered that's where Dallas's hippie contingent had been hanging out, spinning on the sopping wet tiles, which were littered with massive beer cans and plastic cups, twirling down the last minutes before the HOB curfew kicked in and we were swept out to fend for ourselves amongst clubs with shaking walls charging seven dollar covers and chain restaurants tucked in for the night.
Set I: Out Of The Blue, Ain't No Way of Knowing, Fingerprint, Amanda Rose, Jesus On The Mainline, Easy Money1, Don't It Make You Want To Dance1, My Gal, Mossy Cow, What You're Selling, New Horizons > Mother's Only Son > New Horizons
Set II: Casualty, Kentucky Mandolin > Left Me in a Hole, Belle Parker, You're No Good, Dawn's Early Light > Nothin' But Nothin', If Loving You Is Killing Me, Deep Pockets, Near Me, Ten > Follow Me Down To The Riverside > Girlfriend Is Better > Ten
Encore: Red Bird
1 Todd Snider on vocals & guitar
Stubb's BBQ :: Austin :: 04.03.09
In Austin the next day, I felt instantly at ease stepping back on some weirdo concrete. Life doesn't get much better than sipping an affordable Fireman's Four on draft, Snider's haunting, stripped-down cover of "Fortunate Son" floating through the final sinking sunrays to then sing-along with "Alright Guy." Jeff Austin hopped on stage for "Carla," and then Kaufmann joined the two for "Sideshow Blues." A Snider tune that Yonder frequently covers and my first introduction to Snider, it was met with ripping and stomping rowdiness. Folks were ready to go, and the following "Conservative Christian, Right Wing Republican" evoked screams of delightful pride. Snider cracked up at the enthusiastic response. Hey, this might as well be an Austinite anthem, at least for us "tree huggin', peace lovin', pot smokin', porn watchin' lazyass hippies." So preach on brother Snider, you're in good company here. As my friend Jamie shouted periodically throughout the night, "This is AUSTIN, we don't give a FUCK, y'all!"
|YMSB :: 04.03 :: Austin |
It felt fantastic to be back in a venue with real character, beautiful weather and a large enthusiastic crowd. As Johnston declared at one point, "Man Austin, you're getting me all HOT!" The band fed on that energy, traveling on a giddy rush. Yonder's opener, "Granny Woncha Smoke Some," a herbaceous Hartford tune, was an appropriate warm up – although some of us were way ahead of Granny at that point (ahem). This was a tight, blazing first set, where a slithery "Crow Black Chicken" - you got to represent Bad Livers here - dissolved into guitar and mando brushes that burst into a boisterous "If You're Ever in Oklahoma." A gritty cover of "New Speedway Boogie," with Austin really biting into the words, featured Johnston's banjo cackling like a mad man ready to take off and streak through the streets. Johnston was the MVP of this run for me, shifting banjo personalities with shuddering snaps, from driving picking to funkier experimental edges. A shimmering "River" seeped into a tasty "On the Run" > "Highcross Junction" > "OTR." The meat of "Highcross" always makes me want to bust out some vintage dance moves, and as it dialed down to a slow creep back into "OTR," where the tension crept up my spine, it smacked me on the shoulder and then hissed breathily in my ear.
Bumping into friendly and familiar faces left and right, freaks dancing wildly under the stars, I always find shows at this venue to be like mini-festivals, and tonight was no exception. Some strange beauty was floating in the air, and it caught on like wildfire. You could breathe it in, taste it like electric sparks dancing on your tongue, a store of dynamite lying in wait for a match. As the second set began, building from a nicely executed "No Expectations" through the distorted brew of "East Nashville Easter," it launched screaming for the hills with a "Paul and Silas" bust out. The realization building that this was one for the books was no longer able to contain itself, and a rare shout wriggled its way out of my lungs as I pounded some gravel. After skirting us through a flirty "Damned If The Right One Didn't Go Wrong" full of Aijala's fancy fast fingers and Kaufmann's jazzy bass, their eerie "Goodbye Blue Sky" cover was a much-needed moment of down-tempo intensity. It washed over us, waves slipping over our heads, a fractured sun breaking the water's surface. It was also an opportunity to appreciate Ted Atwell's stellar lights. He's really attentive to the subtle movements of the band, but doesn't hesitate to knock us on our ass with intensity when necessary. He obviously has fun painting a scene and the stage show is a real pleasure to watch with him behind the board.
|YMSB :: 04.03 :: Austin |
Billy Bright of Two High String Band – another long-time friend of the band and a tremendous mando talent – came to the stage to absolutely destroy "Traffic Jam" > "Eli Renfro" > "Traffic Jam." Bright and Austin ferociously dueled, Aijala threw notes down left and right, and the over ten minute jam ran on like a freight train, barreling through the pile-ups like The Blues Brothers smash cop cars. It's an appropriate song for a city where everyone seems to spend some of the day stuck in traffic, and I dig Kaufmann's outsider-looking-in commentary that runs through much of his songwriting. The jiggy "Renfro" in the middle snagged us around the waist and inspired some snakey dancing and shimmying back and forth before pedaling onwards, burning rubber back through the madness. Bright's playing is flourished and at times even delicate, each note breathing, moving and shifting. He cut a contrast to Austin's joyous rip-the-guts-out style, the two dancing throughout and when it was over, Austin bowed to Bright before he left the stage.
A hot little "Cuckoo's Nest" made some eyes at us before kicking off into "Boatman" and taking a hike into a howling "Ruby." Austin threw a gnarly "Riverside" tease into the stew. He's a force of nature when he gets going and just runs with it, tripping over some weird wire of insanity and glee. Around me things were blowing up in kind, limbs cutting through the sea of flesh as folks shot left and right across the gravel. We got lost in that dust splatter, moving as one organism, and it seemed like we were barely given a moment's breather before "King Ebeneezer" came barreling out of the encore gate with a sharp, acidic punch. A spring coiled "Bolton Stretch" leapt out to top it off. This set was the equivalent of sonic nitroglycerin, the band firing on all cylinders and pulling together with heavy muscle, a twisting journey that threw us over their shoulder, dragged us to some really dazzling views, and then threw us down for a serious brain beating. But we'd all been behaving badly at Stubb's that night, so we got what we deserved.
|Bright & Austin :: 04.03 :: Austin |
If that weren't enough, we were treated to an extra dose of Bright - plus Green Mountain Grass's Jesse Dalton (bass) and Trevor Smith (banjo), playing as Austin Grass for the after show. In the dark back room of Stubb's, they tore it down for an intimate crowd who was still pushing forward. They had scheduled Lukas Nelson's (son of Willie's) band, dubbed Promise of the Real first, so a lot of folks eager to tread floorboards to more shaking strings long wandered off. Ah but it was worth waiting through all those unfulfilled promises for this trio. Through tunes such as the bobbing Bright number "Nashville," a comment on that city's superficiality, and a cock-eyed cover of Danny Barnes' "Funtime," where Dalton really chomped into his bass with an earthy rattle, the three provided a rousing nightcap. Austin came out to join them for the last couple tunes, including "Kentucky Mandolin," where he and Bright threw down some more, and Smith really slayed on the banjer, leaving us slack-jawed. I had been going for hours at this point, but my bones were still moving and sleep didn't come easy that night, as stars tiptoed into dawn.
Set I: Granny Woncha Smoke Some, Pride Of Alabama, Sharecropper's Son, Crow Black Chicken, If You're Ever In Oklahoma, New Speedway Boogie, Loved You Enough, River > On the Run > High Cross Junction > On the Run
Set II: No Expectations > East Nashville Easter, Paul & Silas, Damned If The Right One Didn't Go Wrong, Goodbye Blue Sky > Traffic Jam1 > Elzic's Farewell1 > Traffic Jam1, Cuckoo's Nest > Boatman > Ruby
Encore: King Ebenezer> The Bolton Stretch
1 w/ Billy Bright on mandolin
House of Blues :: Houston :: 04.04.09
Last night, different city, and the venue looked pretty much exactly the same as the first night of the run, except it was located on the top floor of an outdoor shopping complex of sorts. I think it's safe to say HOB is the Starbucks of music venues – designed to look quirky and inviting, but in reality, stuffed full of corporate trappings. It was telling to contrast the atmosphere of Stubb's to the atmosphere at both HOBs. With a once again considerably smaller crowd, we held it down with enthusiasm near the front, scuffing their tiles. The staff was incredibly attentive to us, and it proved pretty dangerous that you could be served drinks directly from waitresses serving the rail.
|Snider & Kaufmann :: 04.04 :: Houston |
I gleaned some wisdom from Snider, specifically from the great "Ballad of the Devil's Backbone," which closed out his final opening set of the run. A young Snider is given some life lessons by a bar owner named Virgy, reflecting that, "Life's too short to worry/ Life's too short to wait." Snider is tuned into some fine radio station, and with the right ears you can hit that frequency, although, like he says, he only shares his opinions, "because they rhyme." It's the verbiage of someone who's obviously peered into the depths but understands that humor is genuine engagement and an open-arms approach would do most people in this world a whole hell of a lot of good. It was a real pleasure to see him on this tour, and to see him just jam out with Austin and Kaufmann drove home my appreciation for the musical education Yonder has provided me.
And that brought us to my last Yonder show of spring tour. There were two solid sandwiches at the beginning and end of the first set, the reggae bounce of "Keep On Going" > "Two Hits" > "Keep on Going" – "KOG" is one of those songs that has pushed me through some times before - and "Angel" > "Raleigh and Spencer" > "Angel," providing the respective vibrant light and ominous lurk and shred. But, it was the left turns of this show that really grabbed me, as the song choices, particularly in the second set, boasted several happy surprises. I was floored when Aijala led a gorgeous "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" cover in the middle of "Ramblin' in the Rambler." It was heartening to see affectionate "cheers" on the stage during "Rambler" and, to paraphrase Austin's stage banter, you can't beat something that allows you to drink while you work. This came after a couple rare bluegrass bust-outs of "Lost John" and "I'll Love Nobody But You" and one of Kaufmann's bad ass additions to the Sheriff Saga, "Catch a Criminal." Meanwhile, Johnston's sunglasses were causing me to spit out my beverage every time I looked up and saw him sporting them. High spirits and high jinks abounded, and there were more to come after set break.
|Johnston & Aijala :: 04.04 :: Houston |
After a rollicking "Rambler's Anthem," we got treated to "Half Moon Rising." Kaufmann said, "This is one of my favorite songs Jeff ever wrote." Amen to that. Bleary road eyes, snow covered mountains, home fires and sweaty sheets wind through the marrow of this tune full of stirring warmth that invites you inside. After Johnston's rolling "Winds of Wyoming" and "Night Out" - one of Aijala's "wandering hobo man songs," as he and Johnston joked - Snider joined them for the last time. During "Good News Blues," the HOB turned into a real house of blues, where casual picking and hound dog howl-worthy jamming were punted back and forth between the grinning players while those of us in the audience shook our hips. Then Snider's manager David Hicks aka "Elvis," slid over to sing lead on "Suspicious Minds," with all the moves down pat, gyrating and swinging his arms, posing with the mic, and throwing the towel Austin draped over him to shrieking fans at the end.
Flashbulb moments still dance in my head from this show: a haunting, and not played since 2005, "Morning Dew" cover planted in the middle of Kaufmann's "Must Have Had Your Reasons" and "Lord Only Knows (Part 1);" I think I caught some "I Know You Rider" teases but that might be the PBRs talking; Johnston playing Mark Vann's electric banjo, The Stump, and burning sonic sparks through "Just the Same;" the hilarious stage banter about the professional wrestling event in town competing for our attention – with Kaufmann dubbing himself Ben "The Animal" Kaufmann; the folks clapping exuberantly and shooting up and down like pogo sticks during "Another Day;" a stretched out "Only a Northern Song," where the four really roared along as one jubilant engine – Austin scattering mando rolls over Kaufmann's dynamic beat, Aijala just flying and Johnston picking it up with the swiftness where he dropped it off, traveling towards rapture. It was all topped off with a raging "Little Maggie" > "Wheel Hoss" > "Little Maggie," where I swear I kept hearing more "Riverside" teases (see note about PBR above). The set brought it back home to their decidedly "improper" take on bluegrass, but we wouldn't have it any other way. We want our illumination and beauty to roll in the hay with the darkness and deeply felt joys, longing and rage bundled into a complete release.
|Aijala & Austin :: 04.04 :: Houston |
The encore was another coveted tune of mine - "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke." Maybe I love it so much because I see some of myself in the female protagonist who can't listen to anything but her "honky-tonk heart." As I'm getting older and other folks seem to be settling into their grooves, I'm still flying down this highway, chasing down shows. Looking at the faces around me, it was comforting to know that there are others out there who understand that feeling. Whether we run into them at the rail, collide while dancing crazy across the crowd, bump into them randomly at an aftershow or they join us every mile marker of the way, there's family, kinfolk, in all this "dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music" (or, as the band kept singing the line, in possessed bursts, "And spazmatic bluegrass"). Indeed, this probably is the only kind of life I'll ever truly understand, but I think I'm okay with that.
Set I: Keep on Going > 2 Hits and The Joint Turned Brown > Keep on Going, Lost John, I'll Love Nobody But You, Catch A Criminal, If There's Still Ramblin' in the Rambler (let him go) > Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere > If There's Still Ramblin' in the Rambler (let him go), Rain Still Falls, How 'Bout You?, Angel > Raleigh & Spencer > Angel
Set II: Rambler's Anthem, Half Moon Rising, Winds Of Wyoming, Night Out, Good News Blues1, Suspicious Minds1 2, Far Away Eyes1, Must've Had Your Reasons > Morning Dew > Lord Only Knows (Part One), Just The Same, Another Day, Only A Northern Song, Little Maggie > Wheel Hoss > Little Maggie
Encore: Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud Music
1 Todd Snider on guitar & vocals
2 Elvis on vocals
Yonder Mountain String Band is on tour now, dates available here.
Continue reading for more pics of the YMSB Texas Run...