YMSB | 04.12.02 | NYC

Yonder Mountain String Band - Irving Plaza, 13 April 2002 Not getting to go out as much as I did, say a year ago, I have been reduced to a roulette player trying to hit the lucky number for the jackpot shows that roll through New York City. So many choices makes it so, so difficult. Every once in a while, you can get the odds in your favor, and even on a night when there were probably a dozen viable musical options in the city, I knew without a doubt I would be heading to Irving Plaza. There Yonder Mountain String Band was playing their first gig in the venue that has been a stepping stone on the way to great things for many a band (as well as a rung in the ladder on the way down for many others). The gambling world of live music is full of many supposed "sure things" but Saturday night's show reaffirmed what many have already found out -- Yonder Mountain is the "real deal."

"Real" is the name of the game, actually, with these guys. Picking bluegrass pretty much in the way it was originally conceived, the quartet from Nederland, CO is an unpretentious bunch of genuine, true-to-form musicians. And while they may be part of a long evolution of bluegrass, retaining the sanctity of that blessed form, they have found a way to incorporate the free-wheeling improvisational nature of the "jam" scene as well as updating the traditional trove of standards with both well-scripted originals and influence-twisting covers.

Yonder Mountain String Band
Irving Plaza, New York City, NY
13 April 2002

Set 1: Old Plank Road, Sharecroppers Son, Country Boy Rock & Roll, Fathers Arms, Mental Breakdown, Dominated Love Slave, 40 Miles From Denver, And Your Bird Can Sing > Free To Run, Dawns Early Light > Ruby > Follow me Down to the Riverside > Ruby.

Set 2: No Expectations, Little Rabbit, Yes She Do (No She Don't), Must've Had your Reasons, Idaho, Reuben and Cherise, Half Moon Rising, Peace Of Mind > Jam > Girlfriend is Better > Only a Northern Song > Peace of Mind.

E: Tear Down the Grand Old Opry*

* totally unplugged

We entered Irving a little late (I hate missing music -- found the setlist and we missed 5 frickin' songs!) and the first full song we caught was the original "40 Miles from Denver." Actually, we were all a thousand-some-odd miles from Denver, but you'd never know it from the size and energy of the crowd. It wasn't too long ago that I caught these guys opening for the likes of ulu at the Wetlands blowing the lid of that sacred altar for a hundred or so head-bobbers tops. When I made my way into the room, I was pleasantly shocked with the fact that we had to "excuse me" our way back through the packed crowd to the bar. The size of the audience was only outdone by their attentiveness and appreciation for the music. Just a wonderful experience through and through. From there on out, I may as well been 40 miles from Denver, in the mountain air listening to the glorious bluegrass of Yonder Mountain String Band.

Drinks in hand, we found a spot and I was instantly given the chills by the opening riffs to the Beatles cover "And Your Bird Can Sing." With all the music that's out there, good and bad, one thing that is rare is truly appreciable vocals. YMSB has sweet voices in spades and they harmonize quite beautifully. This tune was a great example and it was nailed from top to bottom. Like I said, chills.

The next set and a half was a grinful blur of lush melody and nearly-psychedelic breakdowns. The talent in the band is sometimes overwhelming. Dave Johnston seemed particularly in the zone Saturday, picking banjo solos that waltzed around the hypnotizing basslines of Ben Kaufmann. Adam Aijala plays his guitar like a true student of his instrument -- evoking Tony Rice's clean tone while pushing forward with his own style of acoustic acrobatics. With a band like this, so tight and focused, I hesitate to call anyone the "leader," but Jeff Austin with his twanging mandolin and marijuana-induced charisma is undoubtedly the front man for the quartet.

Austin's solos seemed most likely to depart the band on an adventure of unknown destination. Oftentimes, a simple, unassuming bluegrass number would unfold into a dripping confusion of notes. Without special effects or pedals to dictate the direction, these guys blended 4 individual instruments into a fortified sound by sheer wit. The "Peace Of Mind > Jam > Girlfriend is Better > Only a Northern Song > Peace of Mind" section was a wonderful manifestation of Yonder Mountain's modus operandi. Bluegrass traditional with solos begetting solos round robin style until the solos weren't solos anymore. Then 4 men pretty much "jamming" (for lack of a better word) in truly improvised fashion -- which isn't to say it lacked cohesiveness, quite the contrary. This is where months and months on the road playing with the same guys really shows itself, as the band enters the uncharted and nails it every second of the way. Dare I say that the playing was perfect, because I don't think YMSB strayed from the yellow brick road to bluegrass Oz all night.

The jam meandered artfully always within the bluegrass realm. That's probably my favorite aspect of this band -- it's like they are playing "Six Degrees of Bill Monroe." Yes, they impart a 21 century flavor to the rib-slathering sauce that is bluegrass, but it's still just down-home BBQ at it's best. And if we were to play that 6-degrees game: Bill Monroe > Peter Rowan > Jerry Garcia is two degrees and opens up a world of interesting possibilities. Keep on going - Garcia > Lesh > Haynes > Worrell > Talking Heads (OK, that's more than 6, but what do you want from me?) and that's just where this silly little jam ended up. I had one of those moments where I drunkenly poked someone and muttered "This sounds like the Talking Heads" as the segue dropped note by note into a familiar riff.

Man, I love a great segue, and these guys are the masters. Eventually the song took root and revealed itself to indeed be a Heads cover: "Girlfriend is Better." Great song, well-covered -- stop making sense, making sense. Back into the Nederland netherworld of bluegrass breakdown, Yonder-style and made its way back to true bluegrass picking without the blink of the proverbial eye. As crisp, clear and downright refreshing as the mountain air itself. I think it's obvious that certain types of music appeal to certain aspects of both our psyche and physicality. When bluegrass is played right it massages a certain something that just leaves you grinning ear-to-ear. I don't ask how it works, I just seek it out and get to grinning, and I was all smiles Saturday night.

Everything was so damn well-played, but there is no doubt that the highlight was the Ruben and Cherise. This version was so beautiful, it was darn near tear-inducing. Is there anyone that doesn't absolutely adore this Garcia song out there? So wonderful, but yet so hard to nail (Jerry himself had his struggles, as I'm sure many of you are aware). One word for what Yonder Mountain did to this: flawless. Each lyric, each note, the sweet solos in between -- the audience hushed and gasped, they knew they were witnessing something special. Afterward, Austin said, "Just felt like the right thing to do" or something to that effect. And how!

You gotta love the humbled appreciation for the crowd from the band. You gotta love that they just go out there and lay it all down in the name of entertainment. And you gotta love that they came out for the encore totally unplugged and asked the audience to let them do one without amplification. Not even a whisper, just the all-too-loud grins, as YMSB sent us on our way into the nasty but much-needed rain with a terrific version of "Tear Down the Grand Old Opry."

I dare say this is the best show I've seen so far this year, I can only rue the fact that I couldn't head out to Stanhope last night for the one-mic acoustic show they put on. The band is heading south on their way to JazzFest in New Orleans. Do yourself a favor and catch them while they're hot. Songwriting, vocals, harmony, musicianship, tight jams, great covers, and, most importantly, all while staying TRUE to their bluegrass roots... Yonder Mountain String Band -- what's not to like?

"You should be diggin' it while it's happening." - FZ

Aaron Stein
JamBase | New York
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[Published on: 4/15/02]

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