Yonder Mountain String Band / Leo Kottke, Paramount Theatre, Denver CO- 12/30
The awesome vistas of the Rocky Mountains can leave a visitor to the high altitudes wilted and gasping for breath. In this way, the Yonder Mountain String Band parallels the mountainous region that gave them their start. Concertgoers at a Yonder show can struggle to keep up with a band that shows no signs of slowing down. A chance trip to the Mile High City gave me the opportunity to check in with YMSB for the first night of their two-night stand at the Paramount Theatre in Denver to ring in the New Year. The box office sign showed the next night's show as sold out as the near capacity Tuesday night crowd filed into the two story theatre in downtown Denver raring and ready to go.
Leo Kottke strolled onstage a minute or two after eight, guitar in hand and ready to play, save for his need of an Emory board. Once the ageing guitar virtuoso had filed away, he quickly leapt into a forty-five minute opening set with a brisk instrumental tune. One of Kottke's greatest assets is his gregarious nature, and he spent nearly half of his stage time calmly chatting it up with the audience as if they were an old friend. "Maybe too happy at that wedding," he drolly remarked following the fan favorite, "Rings." Kottke's solo picking touches on more notes than many full bands and his rhythmic playing moved a few to get out of their seats and dance. Kottke's cover of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" was the standout moment of a too-short set, placed amid his vivid storytelling of times past spent songwriting with Rickie Lee Jones and loading vans with Dizzy Gillespie. While it seemed Kottke could hold court all night, his time came quickly as the houselights went up and the final preparations were made to kick off of Yonder's two-night stand.
The band emerged and immediately tore into "You're No Good" a Jesse Fuller tune, most notable for being the first track on Bob Dylan's self titled first album. "You're No Good" and the "Idaho" that followed laid the foundation for what would prove to be a top-notch show. The group showed off their instrumental and vocal prowess blending together into a tightly honed bluegrass sound with mesmerizing harmonies. During "Steep Grade" the band began to stretch it out a bit, each member taking their turn steering the ship through the steep peaks and valleys of an unconstrained jam. There is a great deal of parity in this band, each member existing on a level plane with the others, each instrument taking its turn in the spotlight and in the shadows. Before "What's Goin' On in the Head of That Woman", bassist Ben Kaufman mentioned that in the past he'd thought he had women figured out, but that was all before the Atkins Diet, which got a laugh from the already jubilant audience. "Pride of Alabama", "Not Far Away" and "Winds O' Wyoming", from their recent release with Benny Galloway are crystal clear examples of top notch songwriting. The group's association with Galloway may prove to be a golden fountain of heart felt material for years to come. The set's high point came in the blistering combination of "On the Run" > "Hill Country Girl" > "On the Run". The song cracked open like a soda can, as the audience erupted with energy proving that playing in front of the hometown crowd can have its perks. The jamming crashed past the point of frenzy before reeling its way into "Hill Country Girl" and then right back out again. By the time the flames had died down, both the band and audience needed a breather and each adjourned for their own respective refreshments.
The second set got underway with "Boatman" and the big instrumental "Maid of the Canyon". Ben Kaufmann introduced his song, "Town" as being his take on the suburbs that he had left behind. The most momentous moment of the evening came next during "Keep on Goin' > Half Moon > Keep On Goin'". The boys had remarked in the first set about a few things they were grateful for, and now Austin looked to keep the theme alive during a spirited "Be Grateful Jam" in which Austin rattled off any number of things that made him grateful. Meanwhile, many in the audience were grateful to be in the house with Yonder Mountain as they rocked back and forth with a reggae touch. Banjo player Dave Johnston moved from his perch stage left and snuck in between Austin and Kaufmann on the other side of the stage. The band, now huddled on half the stage, gave the impression of a combo entirely in sync with each other. It never seemed to matter whether they were playing straight bluegrass, reggaebilly, or any of the variety of the spaced out jams with which they ply their trade, Yonder Mountain functions as a unit at all times. Their cover songs were well picked and well played, the Beatles "And Your Bird Can Sing" and the Minutemen's "Corona", two tunes seemingly light years from bluegrass, suddenly seemed like a perfect fit once give the Yonder Mountain treatment. The hour growing near, the band packed it in and called it a night but not before delivering the bristling combo of "Rambler" > "Lord Only Knows" > "Shoulder" > "Rambler" to bring a close to a huge night of music. The band reemerged for two more entertaining covers, Frank Zappa's "I'm the Slime" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Four Walls of Raiford". With that nearly two thousand happy folks were ushered back out into the Colorado night, some folks anticipating the next nights show, others happy just to have spent a few hours in the Yonder Mountain range.
Aaron Hawley’s been a mile high before, but this is his first time in Denver.