Yonder Mountain String Band / Willie Porter, State Theatre, Minneapolis, MN- 11/7
The Yonder Mountain String Band made a much-appreciated stop in Minneapolis to the ornately splendid State Theatre on Friday, November 7. Temperatures dipped into the teens, reminding all who ventured outside what was in the making for the next four or so months. Those that paid no mind to the imposing genesis of winter and made their way to the State Theatre were rewarded several times over by a fine evening of music, allowing all in attendance to warm their auditory senses and to forget about the impending Minnesota freeze.
Kicking things off, Willie Porter treated the audience to a one-man acoustic guitar show, similar in style to that of Keller Williams. Both feature absurdly advanced comprehension of the guitar, and given that, while what Porter played sounded great, there was a slightly disturbing disconnect between the sounds being produced and watching the motions required to engineer such music. Porter's rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Loves" turned the seemingly basic song into a complicated subterfuge of guitar work. I clearly heard the notes being played, and saw what Porter was doing, but the two didn't always add up. And that basically held true (more so on his own compositions) for the course of his set. This observation made Porter's set all the more engaging though, forcing the audience to listen and watch closely to how he produced the magnificent sheets of sound.
As the members of Yonder slowly walked across the stage to assume their positions for the night, a stentorian round of cheers from the awaiting audience greeted them. The crowd was more than ready for the show to begin and gave the band a needed boost of energy to feed off of throughout the evening. Although the first set hinted at a bit of weariness, the music played was by no means sloppy or inattentive, just more subdued in approach. Most of the songs from the first set topically dealt with traditional bluegrass themes, namely tales of despair, longing and self-doubt, accented, though, with brightly uplifting instrumentation that assures the listener that bad times will break with the blessing of time and space. "Deep Pockets" narrated such a tale, emphasizing the frustrating confusion felt during times of want, and later Willie Porter joined the band for a sobering cover of Bob Dylan's "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry." Finely played by all musicians, Porter simplified his playing a tad, and fit in nicely with the arrangement of the song. After another tune with Porter, Austin then opened into "Keep On Going," arguably the gem of set one. Comfortable from the warm-up had to that point, solos firmly fused with one another with Jeff Austin on mandolin, guitarist Adam Aijala, and banjo player Dave Johnston weaving crisply original melodic lines into the song, backed by the bass of Ben Kaufmann. A quick break ensued, after which was promised another lengthy set from the band.
When Jeff Austin announced, "We weren't kidding around, we've got a lot of music to play," his tone was as serious as spandex biker shorts. Those in attendance had an idea, but not a full grasp of what Austin fully meant. Holding true to his words, what followed was a set of inimitable quality. The interaction of the band members was noticeably more apparent, especially when tricky segues came up. Unlike the first set, the second functioned more as one composition with a single theme to be aware of. Solos were lucidly constructed to fit the bigger picture of inventive improvisation within the bluegrass idiom. Several times during the second set, one would have been hard pressed to remember what song the band had begun with, or, what song they were currently in. Getting lost, mentally, emotionally, or otherwise in a piece of music is an exhilarating experience with few parallels, and is precisely what makes for a good set in this particular genre of music.
There was, however, a line that guided the audience, as well as the musicians, along the way. Those lines were drawn by the seamless transitions between solos that articulated the progressive direction of the individual song and set as a whole. Never during the set did one get the idea that forward motion had given way to stasis in any particular spot. A reading of "Please Don't Put Your Bullets In Me" illustrated this feeling superbly. The flawless execution of the jam drew the audience closer to the musical action, closing the gap between performer and audience. All the while feeling lost, one felt completely at ease with where the musicians confidently strayed from the norm during stretched out solos. Further into the set, Zach Kline came onstage and added wonderful violin for the last three songs and encore. Taking advantage of the fine acoustic elements of the State Theatre, the band unplugged and played three songs tainted by a rude minority of loud fans as the encore. From what fragments of the songs that were heard, the band delicately rounded out the evening, departing their audience at a decidedly different location than where they had begun from the start of the night.
Balance is an appropriate way of characterizing this Yonder Mountain String Band show. Balance in up-tempo numbers and ballads, between short and long songs, and critically, between serving as a good time party band and as a catalyst for serious thinking among the audience. Whether one wanted a release from a stressful week, or time and space to think clearly about life, both opportunities were presented in ample quantity. As expected, the cold hit hard upon exiting the theatre, but the warmth of a downright good show ameliorated the sting. Hopefully the wait here in Minnesota won't be too far in between to give it another try.