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
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
JamBase | New York
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