Mountain Tracks, v. 5 – Yonder Mountain String Band
Frog Pad Records
The thing about Yonder Mountain String Band is one is loath to type anything even faintly negative about them. Their new live album, Mountain Tracks, volume 5, is a fine two hours of music. The fact that this is a group of nice guys (who still sling an appropriate amount of swagger) comes twanging through every pick and grin. Their approach to music writes a textbook for aspiring musicians, bluegrass or other. Their potent concerts are joyful rompsguaranteed to put the swing in your thing and shed that heady beer belly every time. They are clearly students of music, both traditional and progressive. However, YMSB needs to change. They are band standing on a precipice: on one side they are a traditional bluegrass band, playing clubs and festivals, on the other, they are a revved up arena-touring machine capable of brilliant outside jamming while still relying on their roots.
For evidence, take the new double discs muscular opener, Sideshow Blues. The band sounds ready to explode within the confines of acoustic music. Throughout the tune, the sense that something else needs to kick in and take the music to a higher level scrapes and claws its way to the forefront. Or examine one of the last tunes on the first disc, King Ebeneezer. As the band delves further into the jam, the entrance of a drummer seems to be coming after every chorus. Adam Aijala seems destined to pick up an electric guitar, and Dave Johnston and Jeff Austin seem ready to run their instruments (banjo and mandolin respectively) through a bank of footpedals. Ebeneezer tries to take on a psychedelic hue, but it just doesnt work on acoustic instruments. Unless you are Sun Ra, outside jamming calls for a processor. Luckily the jam is saved by a steady transition into Ten.
Whenever the YMSB stops being YMSB, when they attempt open jamming, or improvisational sections not based on a song format, the music instantly begs for a full electric band, and so it turns quickly towards Nowhere. Granted, even the greats, or especially the greats of improvisational music, have gone to Nowhere, but that does not excuse such behavior. Their long jams that stay in the pocket, that continue to follow the song form, are as tight and fantastic as anyone can ask for: YMSB is still very good at being YMSB.
Ben Kaufmanns tunes shine especially bright. Mustve Had Your Reasons from the first disc is a great example of a song I can listen to 7,000 times. It is your typical tale of love gone wrong, with a melody stolen from Gordon Lightfoot. It contains one of the best lines Ive heard in months: A friend of ours has seen you, and he said you were lookin fine. But he was talkin about your beauty, and I was askin about your mind. However, Kaufmann shows his ass on the second disc. The First, Second, and Third Laws of Bass Solos all say that Paul Chambers, and Paul Chambers only may take a bass solo. If you are not Paul Chambers, do not attempt. Like the ending jam from the first disc, this jam too is saved by a transitionthis time into East Nashville Easter.
Yonder Mountain String Band could keep doing what they have been doing without trouble. They get better at it every year, but I believe the desire to crank it up has been stirring within them for some time. Additional musicians can limit the places music can go, but in this case, I think electrification would enable the band to push the limits of bluegrass music even further. Perhaps their faithful would hiss and shout Judas should they electrify, but such changes have proved fruitful in the past, so there is no telling what could happen with Yonder Mountain.