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!
JamBase Bay Area Correspondent
Go see Live Music!