Yonder Mountain String Band/ Tony Trischka, Palladium, Worcester, MA- 2/22
Glacial temperatures and record-breaking snowfalls have remade New England into
a combination of a downhill Mecca and an American Northeast version of
"Survivor." Would jamgrass fans brave the raw and unpredictable elements to
celebrate with Colorado-based favorites Yonder Mountain String Band on a
blustery, rain-soaked Saturday evening? During the opening set by banjo ace
Tony Trischka, that question remained unresolved.
Trischka, who scuttled his Bun E. Carlos look by sporting a light-catching silk
shirt, found his quintet playing to a slightly more than half-full dance floor
at the Worcester Palladium. Hampered somewhat by the cavernous interior's
empty balcony (balcony seats are usually not sold at the Palladium) and an
underwhelming mix steeped in mid-range but little else, Trischka nonetheless
impressed his audience with his brand of hillbilly jazz. The band offered
relaxed, sultry excursions reminiscent of the Flecktones minus the world music
overtones. By the time Trischka bid the appreciative crowd farewell, the club
floor began to swell into a teeming mass. Apparently New Englanders are as
rugged as advertised; they arrived en masse, hungry, and on time to take part
in this late-winter hoe-down.
After a brief set break (a low-overhead bonus of acoustic-oriented shows),
Yonder bounded into old favorite "High on the Hilltop," bolstered by a more
dynamic presence than the mix had afforded Trischka's quintet. From the onset
it was apparent that the nasty weather and long nights on the bus hadn't
dampened Yonder's ability to deliver their trademark harmonies. The band might
not possess a soaring bluegrass tenor like Del McCoury or approach the
heart-of-darkness soul of Ralph Stanley, but collectively the vocalists can
resonate with the sweet sustain of a small violin section. Mandolinist Jeff
Austin, banjo picker Dave Johnston, and guitar slinger Adam Aijala, all warmed
up their fretboards on "Hilltop" with concise, tasty breaks.
Another first set highlight was Austin's take on the well-traveled,
done-me-wrong tune, "Romance Blues," during which the band proved their vocal
prowess by nailing the bittersweet high and lonesome sound. Clearly
comfortable with the frontman role, Austin led the band and audience through the
rousing choruses of "Brown Mountain Light," embarking on a chicken-pickin'
mandolin break that surged mightily into a showcase for Johnston, who answered
with an extended, roiling five-string waterfall of his own.
Mid-set, Trischka joined Johnston in the polite banjo sparring match, "Tequila
Mockingbird," as each player respectfully comped behind the other's
improvisation. Trischka added spice to several more tunes, including bassist
Ben Kaufmann's confident reading of "My Walking Shoes Don't Fit Me Anymore."
The anthemic "Only a Northern Song" not only seduced the audience into a
cacophonous sing-a-long, it inspired the set's payoff jam, which was ignited
and eventually dissipated by Johnston's banjo wizardry. Austin wore his heart
on his sleeve with the sincere, gospel-soaked "Four Walls of Raiford," anchored
between the brisk, country blues of "Ramblin' in the Rambler."
While crisp and energetic, the first set only hinted at the full-throttle
capabilities Yonder displayed in the second set. This evening was a homecoming
for Worcester native Aijala, and Kaufmann hails from Maynard, MA, about twenty
miles down the road. In the first set, Adam wore his diligent,
day-at-the-office face, but by the middle of this percolating set, he was all
smiles. Traveling beyond the virtuosity demonstrated by their traditionalist
forebears, Yonder Mountain appeared to approach their second set with a mission – to command the dance floor.
And danced they did. Flailing arms and elastic hamstrings rendered concrete
floor real estate into gold. "Keep on Going," another Yonder anthem,
initiated a rash of pogoing and a sinewy Kaufmann solo before segueing into the
J.J. Cale-identified "Oklahoma," only to return in jamband fashion to "Keep on
Going." Austin inserted a particularly volatile mandolin break during
"Oklahoma," and he scatted above a rhythmic reggae chug that evoked "Small Axe"
before returning to the top slice of the sandwich.
The rest of the hour-plus set revealed a Yonder Mountain String Band at home in
their element. Most selections resulted in odysseys that recalled the Allmans
in their expansive, Southern-fried prime, albeit with near-angelic harmonies
instead of Gregg Allman's primal, roadhouse growl. The band played fewer tunes
than in their lively first set, but the repertoire displayed respect for
songcraft coupled with exploratory and melodically satisfying soloing.
Springsteen likes to end his shows in a sprint designed to rattle the rib cages
of his audience and send them home on a high note. From a more quaint but
equally sincere perspective, Yonder Mountain arouses similar emotions in their
audience with their simple, acoustic yarns of life and love on the road,
swirling rhythms, and dazzling displays of stringed mastery. Yonder concluded
their second set by ripping through "Lord Only Knows," crowd favorite "The
Bolton Stretch" from the disc "Elevation," "On the Run," "Mother's Only Son,"
and a reprise of "On the Run," all propelled and strung together with extended,
Warmer weather and outdoor festivals are still several months away, at least in
this Northeast corner. The fans who abandoned their Play Stations and
fireplaces to pack this genuine, old-time-movie and vaudeville theater were
well rewarded with a burst of fresh mountain air that should carry them over the
hump until the spring sun thaws the hillsides and fairgrounds.