Yonder Mountain String Band
February 12, 2011
Atlanta jam fans had been talking for months about the second weekend in February 2011: Widespread Panic was coming home for three nights and Yonder Mountain String Band was in from Colorado to play The Tabernacle.
Fans from around the southeast and beyond trekked to Atlanta to join in this memorable and deeply musical Valentine’s Day Weekend celebration. The crowd on Luckie Street was abuzz with reports from Yonder’s recent tour stops, memories of tours past, and news from Widespread’s Athens shows.
So what makes this band so special and so different to the point that they now have been bequeathed a festival and have amassed popularity at an almost shocking rate? There is no clear-cut answer. At first glance, Yonder Mountain String Band, who include in their influences the likes of Bad Religion, sports the stringy signs of a traditional bluegrass band. After all, the band generally plays without percussion, and is made up of Jeff Austin on mandolin, Dave Johnston on banjo, Adam Aijala on acoustic guitar, and Ben Kaufman on upright bass. Perhaps the answer to Yonder’s staying power lies within the same story of the famed venue in which they would, on this night call home in that both the spot and band have the ability to evolve over time.
The space that is now The Tabernacle underwent significant changes in the mid 90s when it was renovated from a church to a music hall. However, as a church it was in a sense always a place of spiritual music. Evolving over the years to its current state, The Tabernacle (as opposed to The Baptist Tabernacle) which still boasts the same pipe organs that were present at the turn of the 20th Century now houses music of all genres-from Fergie to Dylan and seats approximately 2,600 patrons.
Nevertheless, space remains at a premium inside the sanctuary. Even though the show was not supposed to start until 9 pm, a winding line of ticket holders coiled against the red brick and granite facade of the building at least 3 hours before the show.
Once inside, the energy was immense as the crowd waited in anticipation and upon the opening notes of "No Expectations," the crowd erupted in cheers, from the floor to the third balcony. The balconies shook and swayed from the thunderous dancing on its floor. Jeff came out blazing on mandolin, musically intermingling with the acoustic guitar of Adam. The large sound that occurred as a result was yet more evidence of what both sets YMSB apart from their peers and spawns resounding approval at virtually every turn. From the stringed instruments that occupied these able musicians comes a sound that is more than simple bluegrass and is in fact, a genre nearly unto them alone. This is not to say that they aren’t capable of the more traditional fare.
In contrast to "No Expectations," "Rain Still Falls" followed with its Appalachian jam sound that is fit for a stomping campfire. Aijala’s vocals were great, as was Ben on upright bass who took a moment to tell the crowd that he loves Atlanta for CNN and warm weather. The crowd roared with agreement for the sentiment expressed in regards to their Big Peach city.
Next was "Naughty Sweetie" into "East Nashville Easter," which was the improvisational moment of the night led by the mandolin play of Austin whose instrument was on fire, supplemented by the intense lighting that further enhanced the performance. The energy on the floor was palpable by the time that the set solidly closed with "Boatman."
Now, the first set was great, but the second set was better, punctuated with creative risks and deep grooves. The strong opening number, "Fastball," was decidedly more progressive than traditional which is interesting considering that "Fastball" is one of YMSB’s more twangy numbers. Herein lies one of the greatest things about Yonder: no matter how traditional the song, these guys layer on the rhythms and feed off of each other in a seemingly spontaneous performance.
The entire second set was energized and the guys didn’t waste any time between numbers, segueing from tune to tune; they picked and teased their way through a five layered structured sandwich that included everything They picked and teased their way from the trance inducing and crazed echo-vocal trickling buildup of "King Ebeneezer" to the bluegrass standard staple "Little Maggie" that was both segued out of and into. These guys are hard workers, and the obligatory encores, the harmonized "Tear Down the Grand Ol’ Opry" and winding yet danceable "Sideshow Blues," provided just the right notch lowering to cap off an otherwise sweaty night that left the room panting.
It’s no wonder that Yonder leads among those bluegrass bands that have successfully joined the jam circuit. Their success as a jam band is due in no small part to the ability to ramp its ever-faithful fans into frenzy, orchestrate buildup and release, and make modern application out of the traditional acoustic instruments that they utilize. They are the product of those that have become before them and like good sons, they have managed to take the style of play to a place of all new refinery and the response has been overwhelming just as it was in Atlanta.
Set 1: No Expectations, Rain Still Falls, The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me > East Nashville Easter, How ‘Bout You, Big Spike Hammer, Hit Parade Of Love, Sangaree, Part 1 (Lord Only Knows), Things You’re Selling, Polly Put The Kettle On, Rambler’s Anthem, At The End Of The Day, Night Out, Boatman
Set 2: Fastball > Left Me In A Hole, Ripcord Blues, Classic Situation, Idaho, Town, Come Together, Casualty, Out Of The Blue, Kentucky Mandolin, Little Maggie > Snow On The Pines > Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie > King Ebeneezer > Snow On The Pines > Little Maggie
Encore: Tear Down The Grand Ol’ Opry, Sideshow Blues
To download the audience recording of this show, click here .
To download set one of the soundboard recording, click here.