Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band made a triumphant return to the Wetlands last night after their virgin voyage into that reputed den of boogie last fall in an opening slot capacity. That night they blew the roof of the joint with a solid hour of non-stop completely segued bluegrass.

Unlike much of the bluegrass that is permeating the "scene" these days - what I would describe as "jam bands" borrowing from the bluegrass world - Yonder Mountain is a traditional bluegrass band borrowing from the jam band world: tight interaction between musicians, long, coherent jams, unbelievably solid segues and right-on songwriting all while maintaining a Phish-like silliness to their stage act. The band is Ben Kauffman on stand-up bass, Jeff Austin on mandolin, Adam Aijala on guitar and Dave Johnston on banjo. After a month or so of shows at the Wetlands consisting of ultra-large super-lineups and sophisticated, futuristic musical technology, the stage last night was refreshingly bare save for the musicians and their instruments.

The set started off innocently as they worked the crowd in slowly from the pure noise of the opener, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (how they get these pairings, I'll never know - last fall they were opening for NYC groove-giants, ulu). Several shorter ditties with bopping basslines, Appalachia-inspired lyrics and pass-the-baton style soloing marked much of the first set.

But the band did show off it's abilities to stretch things out with songs like Freeborn Man which began with a classic formula but then was led off into some long, inspired "acid-grass" by Austin. Taking the whole band on a wild ride, he sizzled on the mandolin until finally the band switched gears into a new portion of the song with full-out jamming assault. Ten minutes later, Austin corralled the band and came back to Freeborn Man with the audience roaring as they just then realized where they had been taken by such an innocent looking band.

Beyond the ability to stretch it out, Yonder Mountain also features some excellent vocal work. Jeff, Adam and Ben all took turns leading vocals and each was strong in his own right. The best moments were like those in Idaho which featured luscious harmonizing from that trio.

The band had only begun as it walked off the stage after an hour of solid bluegrass - making no mistake about the partaking that would be done backstage as they geared up for the second set. They came back on just 15 minutes later and what had begun as an almost straight-ahead night of music quickly became so much more.

Yonder Mountain flexed it's Americana muscle right off the bat with a wild 20-minute sandwich of Move Around the Law >> After Midnight >> Boatman >> Move Around the Law. No doubt, this was the highlight of the show as each song, solid in it's own right, would make way for minutes worth of pure all-out jamming. These jams inched over one or two themes until before you knew it you were trenched in another song - brilliantly seamless. I don't know how they did it, but the opening lyrics to After Midnight were sung just as my watch ticked 12am Thursday morning. Just goes to show that these guys are right on the money! Brown Mountain Light and Jesus on the Mainline were a couple of other rocking jamfests that featured some great soloing all around as well as some wonderful above-the-call-of-duty jamming to round out the second set.

The final noteworthy highlight was the encore. The band moved aside their microphones and unplugged their instruments and sidled up to the front of the stage. Yonder Mountain String Band pure and simple, no amplification, no electricity to get in the way of bluegrass bliss getting into our ears and tickling our brains. I can't remember the first song of the encore, but they finished up the evening with a killer cover of Ozzy Osbourne's Crazy Train that was dead-on, completely inane and wildly fun all at once. The fact that they did it completely unamplified was the coup de grace of the evening - and the audience's attentiveness made me wonder if they couldn't have done the whole set that way.

In my opinion, this is the best bluegrass music in the "scene" right now. The band is beginning their first full-out jaunt through the northeast right now - if you think Yonder Mountain String Band is at all for you, check them out now, you will not be disappointed.

That's the view from here,
Aaron Stein
JamBase NYC Correspondent
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 2/21/01]

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