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Published: 2002/11/23
by Chris Gardner

‘Mountain Tracks: volume II’ – Yonder Mountain String Band


Bluegrass is a language of economy. In part, the time constraints of the
traditional three to
four minute song are evaded through the fast-talkin' auctioneer vocabulary
of the genre, which allows a soloist to speak volumes quickly. The greatest
statements of
bluegrass music, as a result, are aphorisms, expansive thoughts condensed
into four measure solos. They are epigrams, not discussions. Yonder
Mountain String Band clings to many of the traditional elements of bluegrass
music — the drums-free instrumentation, the multi-part harmonies, and the
traditional lyrical foci of love, loss, and the open road, but they throw
concise economy out the window of the speeding van and blaze on down the

YMSB thinks aloud, allowing thoughts to bubble up in the conversation,
brainstorming. Their thoughts are candid and unedited. No set course, no
revision. To some
degree, as with all jam-related music, this is talkin' long and sayin'
nothin'. The best
bluegrass can say in four bars what it takes Yonder twelve minutes to
realize, but the beauty here is the process. This voyeuristic thrill of
watching the ideas form is the essence of jam music, and it is no mean feat
to blend that attitude with bluegrass, an idiom deeply rooted in traditional
forms and arrangements. No band does it better than Yonder Mountain String

"At the End of the Day" opens the proceedings on a decidedly traditional
note, clocking in under the five minute mark and featuring some nice work by
Dave Johnston on the
banjo. Jeff Austin proves here and elsewhere that he is up to the task
lyrically, but his voice has too much high and not enough lonesome. The
appropriately named "Dawn's Early Light" captures the hours of fading
blackness. The closing moments open the door for bassist Ben Kaufmann who
fills every other measure with unaccompanied reggae bass that flip-flops
cleanly back into the chorus three times before emerging into John
Hartford's "Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown". The quick version
showcases both the band's strong high harmonies and Jeff Austin's tendency
to over-indulge, vocally that is. The high speed "Raleigh and Spencer"
follows closely on its heels. It's runaway train chug sends the crowd into
a tizzy, careening wildly forward with an energy that excuses the slip ups.

Their take on Willie and Waylon's "Good Hearted Woman" seems to please, and
I feel sure Stella, to whom the track is dedicated, is thrilled. Still,
tackling a track
attributed to two such stellar voices may be a mistake. Their take on the
Stones' "No
Expectations" is much more successful. Their reworking doesn't have the
gravity of the original, but Austin's lead-in is one of the album's
highlights. Austin's voice seems particularly well suited to this cut from
Beggar’s Banquet, and the soloists are all up to task, if a touch

The disc officially ends with a "Peace of Mind > Follow Me Down to the
Riverside > Peace of Mind" sandwich that stretches over 26 minutes. Nearing
the four minute mark, Ben Kaufmann tears into a junkyard bass line that
sustains the ensuing jam over the next seven minutes until Jeff Austin winds
things down. It is some of the first true jamming of the set with each
member improvising simultaneously. The build up that follows peaks with
Dave Johnston's banjo leading the band into the peanut and jelly of the
sandwich. "Follow Me Down" finds Austin impassioned, screaming his way
through to the "Peace of Mind" closer. It is the best and worst of the
disc, highlighting
the band's ability to improvise at changing speeds and their willingness to
take the solo too far.

The hidden "Goodbye Blue Sky" finds the band gathered around a single mic
for a faithful rendering of the Pink Floyd gem, complete with requisite
shushings from the
band. "Mountain Tracks, volume II" was recorded over four dates, two each
in Colorado and Oregon. The seven tracks stretch over 60 minutes,
showcasing the gamut of the band's strengths and weaknesses. Each member of
the quartet is an impressive musician, which is to be expected in a genre
that demands exceptional if not virtuosic performance, but none proves
himself capable of carrying the extended solos. With few exceptions, they
seem to run out of ideas before they run out of time. They maintain the
energy that makes a live performance, but this set of recordings compels
more dancing than close listening.

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