Yonder Mountain String Band's embrace and distortion of classic bluegrass has found them a niche where old-timey pickin' lovers, jamband enthusiasts, substance abusers and families alike, gather and find joy in their energetic harmonies of stringed assailants. The freedom and energy of their music penetrates a jittery, joyful spark in my gut, and draws me to their various playful expressions. They've received a lot of criticism from classic bluegrass aficionados for singing songs about drinking and drugs and their general playful (and often drunken) demeanor on stage, but have expanded their audience times ten with these same antics. They have a beautiful, fun-loving attitude-blurring the line between audience and musicians, and creating a jubilant scene.

Jeff Austin seems to lead the band with the distinctive sounds of the mandolin and his enthusiastic love affair with the microphone-filling the air with words, bluegrass raps or nonsensical ramblings as he deems fit. (It's a risky move to give a boisterous and outgoing man a microphone, a few official Whiskey Techs, and a stage.) Each member shines individually, and plays off each other amazingly well. These boys have one of the sweetest and most magnificent harmonies I've heard-like Peter, Paul and Mary. Ben Kaufmann, the bassist, has a voice I'd like to soak with in a bubble bath, while Jeff's flickers like a lavender candle with a wider range of pitches. These two lead a majority of the time, exuding goofy talent. Dave Johnston, on the banjo, has a more traditional bluegrass sound in his instrument and voice, and looks as if his underwear's on backwards and a bit too small while he's playing. Fortunately, his child-like smile and intelligent humor between songs alleviates any spooky vibes. Adam Aijala, the guitarist, mixes a smooth compilation of coarse bluegrass twang with a sweet choirboy melody. He's been termed "the cool guy" of the group; a title apparently epitomized by the junior high version of "cool" where looking uninterested and aloof made girls swoon and teachers chuckle.

The junior high theme continued in Chico, CA on the twelfth of November, with music too active and plucked to flow, but not quite fast enough to take flight. The majority of people swayed from one foot to the other a bit awkwardly, wanting to burst into gyrating flailings, but lacking the rhythm. Every now and again someone wouldn't be able to contain themselves any longer, and exploded into completely inappropriate, off-tune convulsions-smiling all the while. The organizers must have anticipated seizure laden dance potential, and splattered the floor with blue tarps-creating an ideal environment for pudding wrestling and perverted versions of belly-flop contests after the show. Depending on your mood and level of perspective, it could have been an intimate and mellow single set, or slow short and empty.

As an unexpected perk, Jeff enlightened the crowd with musical secrets, "make some chords, some melodies, write words, play some instruments-those are the kinds of songs we like to play." But the real gem came with an encore of acoustic songs performed teetering at the lip of the stage. Everyone in the room hugged the spaces between one another right against the stage, and requested songs. Before they played, Jeff kindly filled a five-minute gap while Dave fixed a banjo string, with a lecture about the serious issue of drugs on campus, and their profound insufficiency. For a man who spent his brief interlude with higher education swimming through a hazy cloud of bubbler bliss, he certainly developed an articulate and entertaining jargon. He ended his talk in a hyperactive lunge across the stage and would have kept running back and forth if a cord hadn't said, "enough with this nonsense, on with the show," grabbed his ankles, and sent him stumbling backstage.

They played "And Your Bird Can Sing," "Spanish Harlem Incident," "Half Moon Rising," and "Goodbye Blue Sky." Their voices and instruments sounded even sweeter without amplification, though Adam seemed shocked to hear his voice so clear and unhindered-it took him a second to laugh, bellow, and let the music fly. The contents of the white mugs took hold in the last song as Jeff became oblivious to the words of "Goodbye Blue Sky," didn't skip a beat, and catapulted into his own version until Ben saw an opening and jumped to the front with the familiar chorus. Ahhh, teamwork.

Despite the magical encore, the single mellow set didn't quite satiate my, rather bouncy, soul; I felt obliged to travel to Portland on Saturday the sixteenth of November for the second of two sold-out shows at The Crystal Ballroom with its infamous bouncy floor. Portland was a showcase of talented musicians parading on stage with Yonder. The first set delved in traditional bluegrass tunes, and seemed a warm-up for the second set of the Yonder I came to see. The show jumped to a new level with Tony Furtado taking the stage for dueling banjos with Dave, and didn't stop until they bowed and said goodnight. Tony's a great musician, characterizing his music as having American roots with rhythm. The showcase continued as Tye North snuck on stage to share Ben's bass. They split that burly behemoth of an instrument down the middle and busted out novel, integrated sounds like I've never witnessed before. Two men, one bass, and a room full of deep resounding trampoline victims. Danny Barnes, Orville Johnson and Benny Galloway were among the other guests of the night. And all the while the floor bounced.

I had a great spot right next to the stairs of the stage, and a unique band's eye view of the audience as a colorful montage, sprayed like the first squirt of mustard across the Crystal Ballroom. I don't know if it was the dark lighting, the gothic balcony, or the never-ending wave of motion from the floor, but everyone looked very cartoonish-I waited anxiously for the waves of effervescence to spread to the balcony so I could watch the cartoon colored people fly like Lemmings to the floor below and spring back. Watching the band up close was equally odd. An array of blue, green, and white lights flashed around Dave during one of his solos, creating a feel similar to the boat journey through the tunnel in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory where the freaky chicken image always made me a little nauseous. I felt as if strings ran from my Adam's apple to my navel and each strum, each pluck, vibrated circularly through my flesh. Ben's fingers moved across the bass with power and dexterity, as if they were free agents, unattached from knuckle to knuckle, and still the floor bounced.

The night came to an end with Dave spouting, "You guys are so cool," and Jeff folding that point eloquently into, "I don't want to get philosophical, but this many good people in a room has got to be religious." From a half-empty tarp covered campus venue, to a sold-out buoyant-floored cartoon lemming refuge, YMSB showed their versatility and range with sweet harmonies to fast-finger-picking spasmodic bluegrass tunes. I believe they can play well under any condition imaginable, and smile while they do it.

Reanna Feinberg
JamBase | Pacific Northwest
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[Published on: 11/27/02]

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