YMSB | 02.06 | Knoxville, TN

Words & Images by: Brandon Bouchillon

Yonder Mountain String Band :: 02.06.10 :: Tennessee Theatre :: Knoxville, TN

YMSB :: 02.06 :: Knoxville, TN
In Knoxville, Tennessee, this winter has been relentless. Once great football hopes have flickered, former trusts been proven misguided, and almost two feet of snow has piled atop the whole mess. To call the citizens of Knoxville jaded of late would be an understatement. Last Saturday, Yonder Mountain String Band did their part to churn one town's troubles into a dance floor bout of amnesia.

"We're from Nederland, Colorado, a city with more medical marijuana dispensaries per capita than any other," announced Jeff Austin, with Ben Kaufmann adding, "We don't know what's going on."

The boys of Yonder Mountain have more fun playing music than any act touring today. It's contagious, this joy that emanates from the guitar yelps, banjo lines and torrents of mandolin. Yonder plays with an understated charisma. No frills, no fuss, just the best bluegrass going today - still driven with a youth and stamina that promises many more milestones.

With Yonder throwing-down danceable favorites like "Darling One" and "Howard Hughes," the Tennessee Theatre came to life. It was clamoring room only, even in the aisles. This immaculate venue houses an eerie luminescence, like some sinister cathedral. It's a room with macabre grace, which can be tough to pin-down. Imagine the Ryman Auditorium if Anne Rice had been the architect. Picture the type of venue you'd hope to see Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem perform at.

"We love this room," Austin beamed. "We're lucky enough to have played here before, and we always look forward to coming back."

The first set kick-started with a number of standalones, and the first "Huckling the Berries" in two years was a semi-bustout. But once Yonder reached "If You're Ever In Oklahoma," they shifted into high gear. "Sidewalk Stars" > "Death Trip" rounded out the first set proper, and the boys showed their improvisational chops, with Austin and banjo player Dave Johnston ripping the segue into the stormy goodness of "Death Trip."

"For some reason, the straight-edge bluegrass society doesn't embrace us," admitted Austin, pausing, before his toothy rebuttal. "We have fun anyway."

This energy, and his ability to absolutely shred the mandolin are the foundations of Yonder's success.

Adam Aijala :: 02.06 :: Knoxville, TN
"Dr. Pete Wernick (banjo player for the legendary Hot Rize) is one of the few bluegrass artists who's been able to cross over, time and again [between purist bluegrass and more experimental newgrass realms]," Austin told the audience. "We have a ton of respect for him."

Even the infamous stump banjo made an appearance. Formerly owned by Mark Vann (of Nederland newgrass legends Leftover Salmon) until his tragic passing in 2002, the stump banjo is exactly what it sounds like – an electric banjo made from a tree stump.

The second set began with a "Keep On Going" > "Shantytown" (Desmond Dekker and the Aces cover) > "Keep on Going" sandwich. This segue was minus the traditional "Legalize It" portion, to the dismay of many bleary-eyed fans in attendance (and who doesn't love singing, "Pass the dutchie on the left hand side"?). But Yonder can play bleggae (bluegrass reggae) with the best of them, and this was the highlight of the show. The second set cooled-off with "New Horizons" > "Funtime" > New Horizon" coming late.

An absolutely blistering "Peace of Mind" finished set two, going for a nice experimental ride before wrapping. The setlist actually read "Peace of Mind" > "Girlfriend Is Better" (Talking Heads cover) > "Peace of Mind." but the Tennessee Theatre's 12:30 a.m. curfew was impending, so the band chose to scrap the middle section. Seemed a shame to cut such an epic pairing.

After a brief exit, Yonder returned for a short encore. A forgettable "Free To Run" gave way to crowd-favorite "Ooh La La" (Faces cover). Curfew issues aside, anytime you're treated to three-plus hours of Yonder Mountain String Band you're getting your money's worth.

YMSB :: 02.06 :: Knoxville, TN
However, the pacing of the Knoxville show was a little off, with an inordinate number of standalones and an absence of classic Yonder material, opting for a majority of cover songs instead. To be fair, when you play two nights in Asheville, as Yonder did this week, you may need to reach deeper into the catalog.

"Even though the setlist wasn't chockfull of big-name songs, that was the most fun I've had in a long time," admitted one hometown Yonder Mountain fan. "Even on a tame night, Yonder will kick your ass."

"If this show would've been outside, the dust cloud would've been of epic proportions. People were getting down, hard," claimed Elliot Anders, a senior at UT.

Even at their best, Yonder Mountain String Band seems to be torn between the past and the future, between older material and the new (read: the faster material and the slow). Fans come for the quicksilver banjo burners, the songs you can't dance quickly enough to, and they sit patient through the slower and often more recent tunes. Some nights, the impasse is apparent.

When they're clicking, nobody does it better than Yonder Mountain String Band. Yet, too often they venture away from their niche (high-velocity bluegrass) in favor of something more down-tempo. The results can take the wind right out of a set. Often it's a combination of both moods, a home run followed by a head-scratcher.

Maybe it's not just Knoxville that's jaded. Perhaps it's an infectious notion that strikes fans with feelings of inertia. A general skepticism towards the unfamiliar ensues, with steely indifference soon to follow. Or maybe that's passing the buck. Either way, Yonder Mountain should just bring the heat. This winter's been frigid enough, and bluegrass is best served scorching.

Yonder Mountain String Band :: 02.06.10 :: Tennessee Theatre :: Knoxville, TN
Set I: My Gal, At The End Of The Day, Roughneck Blues, Huckling The Berries, Jesus On The Mainline, Howard Hughes Blues, Just The Same, Darling One, If You're Ever In Oklahoma, Town, Hit Parade Of Love, Big Spike Hammer, Sidewalk Stars > Death Trip
Set II: Keep On Going > Shanty Town > Keep On Going, Fingerprint, To See You Coming Round The Bend, Pockets, New Horizons > Funtime > New Horizons, Complicated, Another Day, Sometimes I've Won, Peace Of Mind
E: Free To Run, Ooh La La

YMSB is on tour now; dates available here.

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[Published on: 2/8/10]

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