Friday night, January 11, was downright balmy in Music City when Yonder Mountain String Band rolled into town for the second stop of their winter tour. Near 70-degree temperatures lured fans out to Marathon Music Works for the venue’s first concert of the New Year, and the near-capacity crowd was ready to shed the cares of the week and surrender to the music served up by the Colorado-based jamgrass band. At a time of year when many bands are taking some time off before the hustle of the festival and road season begins, Yonder Mountain decided to embark on a rare winter outing. Guitar player and vocalist Adam Aijala (AY’ zhuh luh) admits that the effort is a gamble.
“It’s an experiment, really,” he says. He and banjoist/vocalist Dave Johnston are relaxing in a lounge at the venue before show time. It’s already loud in the concert hall; you can hear the excited crowd and the thump of the music from the house speakers through the walls. “I mean, generally we go about anywhere from two to three weeks later than we left this year and for the same reason, to take a rest in January. Weather can be a lot to deal with depending on where you’re going, obviously, snow and whatnot. But we’ve been toying with the idea for a few years on the request of our booking agent, and he just said, ‘Well, no one’s out there, you know? It’s open, why don’t you try it?’ So this year, we decided to do it.”
After a lively opening set from Austin-based Wood & Wire (punctuated by a guest appearance by Della Mae fiddle player Kimber Ludiker), Yonder Mountain sauntered onto the stage at around 9:30 p.m., accompanied by the evening’s special guest, Jason Carter (Del McCoury Band and the Travelin’ McCourys) on fiddle. Carter is appearing with the band for the tour’s first nine dates, through January 24.
If you’ve never seen the quartet’s live show before, well… this ain’t exactly Uncle Lester’s bluegrass. The stage features constantly flashing colored lights to enhance the music, which is likewise colored by various electric effects pedals – and even speaker feedback from the mandolin a la Jimi Hendrix! Nevertheless, Yonder Mountain’s music is rooted firmly in acoustic influences and instruments, jaw-dropping musicianship and lyric-driven song styles, if not always a traditional tone.
For Adam and Dave, who often write songs together, they attach strong importance to writing tunes that will be meaningful to their fans, while at the same time presenting a show that offers an escape from the pressures and routines of everyday life. Notes Dave, ”I think what we’re trying to do now is pay attention to what effect your particular types of songs are having on your crowd. You may have it in your head that you want to write or perform this very difficult or artistic type of music that flies clean over the heads of everyone who came to see you. You’re not going to bring any more people in by beating them about the head.”
Adam has a clear idea of the role of Yonder Mountain in the Big Scheme of Music – don’t take yourself too seriously. “I look at Yonder as the band to escape,” he offers. “You know, come and have a good time, like, we don’t preach anything. I want people to come and not think about their everyday lives, because we put out a lot of energy and I see a lot of smiling faces. And, like, that’s the idea. We’re kind of a traveling party, really, and that’s cool with me. I mean, I make a living doing that.”
The band kicked the party immediately into high gear with Illinois Rain and 40 Miles from Denver, both of which received enthusiastic responses. It was a good-time crowd; throughout the night, some 300 people were waiting at the bar at any given point in the show, passing their time in line by dancing to the music. For that matter, the whole room was dancing, from the beginning of the show through the end.
All four of the regular band members took turns with lead vocals at various points in the evening, but what must be noted here are the astonishing levels of musicianship on display. Aijala routinely made short work of the most complex, intricate guitar breaks without spectacle. Johnston alternately rolled his banjo like Earl Scruggs or hammered it like a rock guitar, as circumstances demanded, pulling even pseudo-reggae sounds forth for King Ebeneezer, which also featured percussion on the box by the Flecktones’ Futureman. Ben Kaufmann’s steady bass held the fort down throughout the night, emerging from time to time to shine in the spotlight. It was perhaps no brighter than when he handled an aggressive solo during Two Hits (and the Joint Turned Brown), which got the crowd cheering. The audience seemed to respond particularly warmly to singer Jeff Austin’s mandolin, which he plays with a forceful attack on all of his solo work, in the vein of Sam Bush.
Angel closed the first set of the show, and despite the fact that the punch of the electric bass was prominent, the banjo and fiddle reminded you that this is an acoustic-music band. Everyone shifted into their highest gear for the breakdown at the end of the song, with Carter taking a stunningly extraordinary turn that rose to the level of some of his best work. Earning a break, the band took their intermission at 11:00 p.m., already having played for nearly an hour and a half.
It was a little after 11:30 before the band took the stage for the second set, and it is a credit to them that it seemed that the crowd had dissipated little, if at all, during the break. In fact, the doors on both sides of the hall had been flung open to enjoy the night air, and fans were standing outside enjoying the weather and listening to the music. Kicking the set off with Jail Song, it was Althea that elicited a huge response, with the fiddle ringing out through the funky groove and Aijala sending out a guitar solo that let the crowd know that he had not even begun to tire.
The audience roared its approval and surprise when Ronnie McCoury appeared on the stage, having just come from a gig at the Grand Ole Opry a few blocks down the street (Don’t you just love Nashville?). He warmed up with a hair-raising rendition of Katy Hill led by Carter, followed by Kaufmann singing New Deal Train. It was on Pretty Daughter, though, where McCoury had the opportunity to show his truly exceptional mastery of the mandolin, sparring with Austin in a friendly exchange that pushed them both to excellence.
Johnston is an interesting player to watch. Not flashy, he is a subtle but complex player. When it’s his turn to take it up a notch, however, he GOES. As noted earlier, his banjo does things far beyond traditional bluegrass rhythms, swinging hard into the rock arena and exhibiting creativity rarely seen on the instrument. It might surprise some that it is a priority for Johnston to wave the flag for acoustic music, but as with the rest of Yonder Mountain, he does not limit his innovation to stringent rules.
One thing that’s rather unique to Yonder Mountain shows is that they make it a priority to play a different show every night. That is, they have a song inventory built up that they can call upon so that they need not rely on repeating songs from one night to the next, one town to the next. Aijala explains, “We do a different set list every night. You’re never going to see the same show,” he says. “If you go to five shows in a row, you might hear a couple of repeats over those five shows, but we have enough songs where you’re not going to hear many. We look at what we played the last time we were here. Ben wasn’t with us, so we knew we could add a lot of Ben songs. Basically, we won’t repeat anything we played here last year. I think that keeps people interested.”
The night ended with Futureman returning to the stage for the two encore numbers, Slime and Bloody Mary Morning. It was an exhilarated crowd that finally spilled out of Marathon Music Works in the wee hours, having well gotten their money’s worth from a high-energy show, produced by top-notch players having a good time with each other and the crowd.
It’s true, Yonder Mountain String Band are bluegrass in only the very loosest of terms. There are those who will or cannot concede that they should be counted among bluegrass bands at all. But it does bring to mind that while they may be “progressive,” “newgrass,” “jamgrass,” or any other “-grass” moniker you could choose to attach to them, the bluegrass community might consider it good fortune that musicians of this caliber would be considered part of the ranks at all.
Surely there is room under the umbrella for players this accomplished, because isn’t that a hallmark of bluegrass, bragging rights to the best artistic masters in music? If it is, then Yonder Mountain String Band belongs. If you love them already, great. If you haven’t heard them, try to see them live this year and be amazed.