Earlier this year I had the pleasure of seeing Yonder Mountain String Band for the first time. Last night I found myself seeing them once again, already my 4th time in just a few months.

What's remarkable is that, besides crossover bands like Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident, I've never seen a pure bluegrass band before in my life that I actually found satisfying. While I respect the high regard for musicianship in the bluegrass genre, most bluegrass bands don't really "jam", at least not how I think of jamming. Most bluegrass bands just play solos.

Not Yonder Mountain, though. Following the traditional bluegrass format of strings only (no drums or percussion, no keys), these four pickers from Nederland, CO really know how to break the mold and take the audience on wild rollercoaster rides of jamming. They do plenty of songs straight-up, in the traditional bluegrass style, but the sandwiches, segues and adventurous ebbing and flowing jams are the true highlights. It sure doesn't hurt that each player is truly extraordinary on his respective instrument.

Primary singer/songwriter Jeff Austin is particularly phenomenal on the mandolin, a prodigy the likes of which I suspect the bluegrass world has not seen in a while. I have simply not ever heard an acoustic mandolin played so ferociously and transcendentally before. His skills go far beyond the common "play as fast as humanly possible" approach that seems common in bluegrass. What's more, his sassy vocal style, commanding stage presence, whacky sense of humor, and irresistible enthusiasm make him a talent to reckon with.

All in their early 20's, Austin, bassist Ben Kaufman, guitarist Adam Aijala, and banjoist Dave Johnston all contribute material, and all can drop your jaw with their dexterous fingerwork. Together they weave and intertwine through topsy-turvy musical excursions, each listening to each other attentively, and all the while chugging out an infectious groove that keeps the crowd dancing wildly.

Last night's show in Petaluma, CA (an hour north of San Francisco) was yet another eye-opener for me. They played quite a few songs I have never heard before, despite having seen them several times. I did recognize Yondermeister crowd favorites like "Rag Mama", "Half Moon Rising", and "There's Still Ramblin' in the Rambler", with it's ode to Jagermeister shots.

The clear highlight of the show came early in the second set, right after the above-mentioned "Rambler" song, during which the band each downed a shot of Jager in unison with many fanatics in the crowd and then announced that it was time to open a can of whoop-ass, before launching back into the song. What happened after that song was, local mandolin legend David Grisman stepped on to the stage, and the Mystic Theatre went absolutely NUTS!

For the next half hour they tore through five songs, including Grisman's instrumental "Telluride" (the band announced they've been invited to the renowned Telluride Bluegrass Festival next summer), the jug-band classic "Yes She Do, No She Don't", and the Yonder favorite "On the Run", bassist Kaufman's tale of an affair with the local sherriff's wife gone awry. During this half hour, the jamming and interplay was simply exquisite. An absolute virtuoso himself, Grisman knew exactly what to do. The exchanges between him and Austin were breath-taking, and the resulting jams tremendous. It was obvious Grisman was having a great time up there. His eyebrows raised in appreciation of Austin's playing quite a few times.

The second set closed with a long rendition of the uplifiting original "Keep On Going", sandwiched around a cover of the Dead's "New Speedway Boogie" and a humorous reggae-fied "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine". (you probably had to be there to appreciate that!) The band returned to a deafening ovation for one encore, an unamplified version of "Mother's Only Son". The crowd listened in attentive silence, wowed by the band's superb harmonizing. They show unbelievable vocal maturity and attention to detail for a band this age.

Most of my friends around the Bay Area, including myself, are big fans of bands like Phish, Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident, moe., Steve Kimock, Sector 9, Grateful Dead (to name a few). I'm happy to report that quite a few of us (and more to come) are now big fans of Yonder Mountain, and we'll be seeing them again as soon as we can!

Rob Winkler
JamBase Bay Area Correspondent
Go see Live Music!

[Published on: 11/3/00]

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