Words & Images by: Bill Clifford
Yonder Mountain String Band & Railroad Earth :: 10.17.09 :: Nokia Theatre :: New York, NY
For live music fans, it's always a wonderful rush when two of your favorite acts are performing together. Such was the case for this writer when Yonder Mountain String Band and Railroad Earth were booked in New York City. That the performance would take place in Times Square was simply the icing on the cake.
New Jersey-based Railroad Earth opened the show with an upbeat and inviting reading of "Seven Story Mountain" before the lilting violin and acoustic guitars of "The Forecast" drew shrieks of excitement from enthused fans now gathered in front of the stage. Older instrumental "Bread and Water" inspired a small portion of the crowd to clap their hands in unison, slightly pulling in a tent revival feel to the proceedings.
The tempo mellowed on the sweet ballad "Loving You," then lifted again with the familiar opening guitar picking of the buoyant "Smiling Like A Buddha." Todd Sheaffer and Andy Goessling's guitars weaved in and out with John Skehan's mandolin and Tim Carbone's violin, exhorting the crowd to do-si-do along. RRE closed out its NYC stop with their version of Neal Casal's "Dandelion Wine." Their most traditional bluegrass-sounding song of the performance, it got the audience shuffling and stomping its feet and inspired quite a bit of honky-tonk dancing - a sight to see in Times Square of all places.
The lights dimmed and Yonder Mountain String Band took the stage with gracious smiles, looking pleased to see such a large crowd in New York City. The band opened the first of two sets with a sprawling, high-speed romp through "Raleigh & Spencer." It was an inspired choice for an opener, immediately drawing a mix of suave hipsters and country hippies to the open floor.
Frontman Jeff Austin introduced stand-up bassist Ben Kaufmann, who stated, "Thank you very much. This is the most people we've ever played to in New York City. We've been coming here a long time. Remember The Wetlands? I do." Austin added that the first time the band played The Wetlands "about twenty three of you were there. Our van got broken into, and we're like, 'We're going to make it in this town.'"
| Railroad Earth :: 10.17 :: New York City|
"40 Miles From Denver," Kaufmann's bittersweet ode about leaving someone behind to return to life in the Appalachian Mountains, followed, and here it seemed that a large portion of the crowd sang with him. Austin brought a huge cheer from the audience when he said with a bit of a grunt, "We're gonna cram as much music as we can into tonight for all of you. And when we're full, were gonna add just one or two more."
Kaufmann's lament to the ramblin' gamblin' lifestyle of the road, "Sometimes I've Won," featured a sweet guitar and banjo interlude. "Another Day," sung by guitarist Adam Aijala, was a traditional bluegrass stomp that further shone the spotlight on Dave Johnston's banjo picking.
YMSB has an incredible repertoire to pull from, and this evening's selection of Kaufmann's "Complicated" was evidence of that fact. The only song they played off their most recent studio CD, The Show (JamBase review), his bass held the low end fine enough, but missing were the drums that many of that album's tracks were recorded with.
Austin made note of his family's Queens connections and that his mom had long dreamed of seeing him play on Broadway. "So, I got to call my mom, and I said, 'Mom, I just took a picture of my face in Times Square, and I'm playing actually address-wise on Broadway!" Then, stepping back from the microphone, he added with a laugh, "Anyway, this one's for you, mom!" and with a few plaintive strums on his mandolin was off into their classic "Southbound," enticing Aijala into a mid-song guitar solo.
| Jeff Austin - YMSB :: 10.17 :: New York City|
YMSB closed the first set with a four-song run that began with the evocatively intoned traditional bluegrass instrumental "Elzic's Farewell," featuring stellar picking from Austin. It was followed by the equally dark "New Horizons," about a farm family running from a deluge of rain, which dissolved via a bass solo into the much more high-spirited "Holdin'," with Kaufmann's cheerful chorus of "Do-da-do," and finally came back around to the closing crescendo of "New Horizons." Austin and Johnston played right up to one another, locking eyes and bringing it together at just the right moment. It was exactly this kind of "nu-grass jam" that created so many fans for the band in the first place. This closing run lifted the crowd's spirit and had folks spinning, shuffling, smiling and dancing.
"Is that it on a Saturday night, New York?" asked Austin as the band took the stage for the second set, coaxing a cheer from the remaining fans at the Nokia Theatre. Though it had thinned a bit, the theater was still fairly packed. "I knew ya had more than that in ya. We've got a lot more in us as well."
A sweet "Traffic Jam" > "Little Rabbit" > "Traffic Jam" sandwich featured Johnston and Aijala picking at a vigorous pace and feeding off the crowd's energy. Austin made a reference to several of the band's influences and energetically stated, "Without a guy in a band called the Bad Livers, a musician named Danny Barnes, we might not be standing here. So, we'd like to welcome Mr. Danny Barnes out to the stage, to just rip some shit in New York City with us. What do ya say, Mr. Barnes?"
| Ben Kaufmann - YMSB :: 10.17|
"Pine County Breakdown" was a traditional bluegrass dueling banjo instrumental, while the Bad Livers' "Where They Do Not Know My Name," though rooted in bluegrass, was played with the speed and punk aesthetic the Livers built their name on. When Barnes set into picking with Johnston and Austin, his influence on the quartet was evident.
"Finally Saw The Light" tells the tale of a rambling outlaw who finally finds solace in the Lord's graces. Kaufmann sang it with passion and zeal, and Johnston's plaintive banjo was a guiding light in the darkness. Disappointingly, the song drew only modest applause. And Austin's second set closer, "Peace Of Mind," which featured slashing mandolin runs against Aijala's melancholic guitar strums, barely seemed to raise most fan's energy. Despite a packed house in Times Square, there is just something incredibly different about hearing YMSB perform down South or in the mountains that just wasn't present in New York City.
As the band returned for the closing two song encore, Austin thanked the crowd, stating that if they'll keep turning up that the band will keep coming back. Closing out the performance, RRE's Tim Carbone joined the band on fiddle for a choice cover of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come;" the reggae classic taking on a new feel played on traditional stringed instruments.
"We got time for one more big old bluegrass number. Are you feeling it friends? Are you feeling it New York City?" hollered Austin. Together with Carbone and Barnes, they launched into a speedy version of "Shady Groove" to end the night.
Railroad Earth Setlist
Seven Story Mountain, Old Dangerfield, Bird in a House, The Forecast, 1759, Bread and Water, Lovin' You, Like a Buddha, Dance Around Molly > Dandelion Wine
Yonder Mountain String Band Setlist
Set I: Raleigh & Spencer, 40 Miles From Denver, Pride Of Alabama, Sometimes I've Won, Winds On Fire, Another Day, Complicated, Southbound, Elzic's Farewell > New Horizons > Holdin' > New Horizons
Set II: Traffic Jam > Little Rabbit > Traffic Jam, Crazy, Pike County Breakdown*, Going Where They Do Not Know My Name*, Finally Saw The Light, Country Boy Rock & Roll, Natchez Whistle > Peace Of Mind
E: Harder They Come Harder They Fall#, Shady Grove#
* Danny Barnes on banjo & vocals
# Tim Carbone on fiddle
YMSB is on tour now; dates available here. RRE is also on tour now; date available here.
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