Colorado's own Yonder Mountain String Band, joined up with the legendary acoustic act of Hot Tuna, as well as the premature frigid winter weather for Halloween in the great north woods. As they took the stage in Portland's historic Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall fun would fly and freaks would dance. Two days earlier Portland was basking in a record-breaking mid-seventies heat wave, but as Halloween approached, the thermometer plummeted more than 30 degrees. No worries though, because the boys from the Rockies brought enough heat to fire us all up.
Hot Tuna serenaded the audience to start things off. It is hard to believe that Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady have been playing together since their High School days in the late 50s, and that their sound can still sound so fresh and inspired. Throughout the set the crowd remained seated and respectfully silent, listening closely to every note. There was a sense of awe and respect being projected to these living legends. Having Hot Tuna open created an interesting combination of energies for the musical flow of the evening. Hot Tuna seemed to be the calm before the storm, because of the boundless energy of Yonder Mountain that followed, but there was nothing awkward about the transition from slow and soulful to charged and relentless.
Hot tuna is about to launch an east coast tour, supported by a full backup band, but for these two shows in the northwest, they were playing solo acoustic. They played a few bluesy numbers ("Uncle Sam Blues," "I'll let you know before I leave") that really allowed Jorma's slick soloing ability to shine, as well as Jack's trained ear for spacing deep notes around Jorma's fluttering guitar runs. Jack introduced the appropriate choice of "Vampire Women," by giving us a nice little Halloween story. They also played the classic "99 Year Blues," where upon completing the song, Jorma literally applauded Jack's impressive bass solo. "Hesitation Blues" wrapped things up, and everyone seemed to really enjoy seeing these musical vanguards playing this gorgeous hall.
I would like to take this opportunity to give a little background on the Arlene Schnitzer Hall, since its beauty was a factor in the overall feel of the evening's events. For those who have never seen this hall, it seems best described as a classic concert hall with high ceilings, and ornate carvings that adorn the walls. There is a balcony which offer great views, as well as reserved seating on the floor. I had never been to this venue before, and really appreciated its beauty by night's end.
The stage was decorated with a giant pumpkin balloon backdrop, as well as a suspended blow up spider with lights along its thorax, and many real pumpkins and fake coffins and tombstones. The decorations were fun and festive, but not over the top. Yonder and Darol Anger dressed up like characters from the movie The Exorcist. Everyone was dressed up like a priest except banjo player Dave Johnston, who was dressed like the Linda Blair's classic head spinning character Regan.
It must be said that there are drawbacks to playing historic venues like the Schnitzer, and these problems seemed to arise during Yonder's set. Normally this venue houses symphonies and operas, not Colorado freak parties, and this clash of cultures seemed to cause problems that came to a head in a variety of ways. The security was obviously not familiar with this type of scene, and their handling of the dancing and frolicking fans was more combative than in most venues. People were actually being removed from the show for dancing where they were not allowed. It created palpable tension, in a night that should have been anything but tense. In defense of the security staff, they were worried that the added weight of the dancing fans to the orchestra pit would pose a possible collapsing risk, which is completely understandable. The true issue lied in how they addressed that problem, and interacted with the fans.
Yonder had invited guest fiddle maestro Darol Anger to sit in for the entire show. It seems every time they come to the northwest Darol sits in, and adds his fiery solos and resonating melodies to a band that on their own, creates a rich full sound. I feel like we are getting spoiled up here, but trust me I'm not complaining.
YMSB did what they do best, and had our collective feet jumping to their unique boo-grass stylings (sorry I had to throw in at least one Halloween pun). Their first set was crawling with an array of Misfits tunes including "Astro-zombies," "Skull," and "All Hell Breaks Loose." What was really enjoyable about these tunes was Yonder's ability to take these songs rooted deep in a different genre and style, and make them their own. As far as traditional YMSB highlights the "Ramblin' In The Rambler" > "Steep Grade," "Sharp Curve" > "Rambler" reprise was a major first set highlight. Yonder played a fluid version of "Train Bound For Glory Land," which is straight off of their newest album, and tour namesake, Old Hands. Overall the first set was thoroughly enjoyable, and ended on a high note with a fluid medley of "Years With Rose" > "Lee Highway Blues" > "Follow Me Down To The Riverside" > "All Hell Breaks Loose."
To be completely honest I would have really enjoyed seeing Jack and Jorma come out with Yonder for at least one song, but unfortunately this collaboration was not to be on this night. From what I've heard they came out the following night in Seattle for a few songs, cest la vie as they say.
The second set was chock full of high-energy originals, and well-placed covers, which complimented the first set very well. Throughout the set there were smooth transitions between tunes, and a variety of Halloween antics. It seemed at any moment, and in any song, mandolinist Jeff Austin would throw a ghost story or Halloween reference out. At one point in the set someone from the crowd threw a fake arm onto the stage, and guitarist Adam Aijala picked it up, and used it as a makeshift cappo. Spirits were high, and so was the energy in the Schnitz.
I believe the best thing about seeing a Yonder Mountain String Band show is the guarantee of high-energy songs that are very danceable, as well as their ever-abundant sense of humor. For anyone to limit their classification as solely bluegrass would be to ignore the variety of musical influences seen each night. The highlight of the night was a great run of songs in the second set that included "The Trolls Dance" > "Jesus On The Mainline" > "Elzic's Farewell" > "Spanish Harlem Incident." The transitions were fluid, the jams were exploratory, and the energy was high. They closed the set with the crowd favorite reggae tune "Two Hits," and crowd pleaser "Peace of Mind." For the encore we were treated to an unplugged combination of "The Pan-American" and
"Holding." Bassist Ben Kaufmann finished the night off perfectly by serenading us with "Holding."
Everything I look for at a Yonder show was right here, and the boys delivered. A fun filled Halloween party that left us all wanting more. Thank goodness that Jeff Austin announced that there would be another String Summit in the summer of 2004. I guess We'll just have to brave the impending winter until then.
Words & Images by: Jason Gershuny
JamBase | Oregon
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