It was kind of a bummer when I walked into Liberty Hall at 8:00, the announced start time for Yonder Mountain String Band‘s show on Friday the 13th.
A few dozen fans were staking their spots out up front, and the balcony was just barely filling in a little.
Was Yonder losing its touch?
Were they not new (grass) enough anymore? Had they used up all that karma they generated with their relentless touring over the past decade, playing festivals and entertaining mountain folk and hippies alike? Was two nights in a row at Liberty Hall simply too much YMSB for Lawrence to handle?
Not a chance.
In the brief span of a walk across the street and back the place was crowded, hazy, and smelling like Christmas morning. The line for PBRs was 20 deep. And the sound board was the closest I could comfortably get to the stage.
As the name suggests, Yonder Mountain String Band consists of guitar, bass, mandolin, and banjo, mainly. All four of the members sing regularly in the old-timey yellin’ sort of way. The band started with a heavy dose of favorites, including “Left Me In a Hole,” “1/2 Moon Rising,” and “At The End of The Day,” all off of their debut release, 1999’s “Elevation.”
They played fast and loose, with typical Yonder proficiency. The sound was great – balanced, clear, and clean. Nevertheless, at times you could tell that this was the last show of “the longest tour of our lives,” as Jeff Austin, the mando player half-seriously vented. Instead of the usual needle-point focus and professionalism, Yonder let it all hang out. The band guzzled Coronas and gave a shout out to a loyal fan who was supposedly attending his 1,000th show. The bass player chatted up some girls who didn’t believe he was in the band earlier when they were perusing the merch table. "See? I really am the bass player for YMSB. Now do you want to come on our bus?"
Maybe. What else you got?
“Eight Cylinders,” another favorite off “Elevation” was sweet and reassuring, and I remembered why I’ve seen this band about ten times over the years: A touch of the old, blended with the new, in a unique, but not straight-up derivative sort of way. Really nice.
After a short set break, the crowd was sufficiently plied to really get down, and Yonder didn’t disappoint. “This one is for you people who drive ridiculous distances to see us!” shouted Austin as they launched into their epic version of “Ramblin’ in the Rambler,” which dovetailed into “Peace of Mind,” and then back again. And of course, the song “wouldn’t be proper without a big toast!” as Austin and his mates threw back something that I can only hope was Jagermeister.
Later in the second set, the band showcased their strengths. One thing that really sets YMSB apart from other new-grass-y bands is their ability to genre-shift without losing that chug-a-lug bluegrass locomotion. As the band tripped out on several extended instrumental jams they delved into jam band land. No effects pedals here, though, just the synched-up super fast pluckin’ of these high country boys accompanied with fist pumping, a little hootin’, and a little hollerin’. The textures and rhythms they create rival those of bands that utilize laptops and loop stations.
The crowd continued dancing their asses off, even in the balcony, as the band blazed into covers of the Minutemen’s “Corona,” as well as The Talking Head’s “Girlfriend is Better.” After playing two hour-long sets, of course they were up for an encore, and the appreciative crowd delivered their ovation for the hardworking foursome.
I busted into the cold Lawrence streets, sweaty and thinking of snowflakes and Subarus. I couldn’t get something out of my head that the bass player, Ben Kaufmann, said:
“As long as you’re lookin’ at the devil’s ass you’re doing OK.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Set 1: You’re No Good> Left Me In A Hole, 1/2 Moon Rising, Complicated, At The End Of The Day, Hog Potato, Sangaree, Looking Back Over My Shoulder> Crow Black Chicken, And Your Bird Can Sing, 8 Cylinders, Boots, If You’re Ever In Oklahoma> I Am The Slime> If You’re Ever In Oklahoma
Set 2: Polka On A Banjo, River, Long Time, Ramblin In The Rambler> Peace Of Mind> Ramblin Reprise, Just The Same, Big Spike Hammer, IF I Lose, Irondale, Rambler’s Anthem, Corona, New Horizons> Girlfriend Is Better> New Horizons E1: Rag Mama, Alalee E2: Crazy