Yonder Mountain String Band with Darol Anger, Port City Music Hall, Portland, ME – 10/24
When Yonder Mountain String band hit the stage at Portland, ME’s Port City Music Hall, a blast of double takes resonated through the 550-person hall. The shock of wildish silver hair, big grin, and electric violin that headed to stage right was immediately recognizable – Darol Anger was in the house. Yonder’s Jeff Austin greeted the roaring Port City crowd – alluding to the fact that Anger was “not the only surprise we have for you tonight” – and then wasted no time in lighting the fuse on an explosive first set. By the time Yonder + Anger reached the far end of a voyage through the opening string of tunes (“Jesus On The Mainline” > “Ewie With The Crooked Horn” > “Jesus”), they’d morphed from a happy grass band to a immense bass-bomb-fueled rhythm machine and back. It was obvious they were on.
“Whenever we get to play music with Darol, it’s like we’ve put the band back together,” bassist/vocalist Ben Kaufmann said at one point during the evening. It’s true – rather than being a guest the band had to make room to accommodate, Anger simply folded into Yonder and was one of them – including sharing in the pause for a Jagermeister shot during “Ramblin’ In The Rambler” before slamming into a Bo Diddley-pulsed “Polly Put The Kettle On”. His violin added another layer of sonic texture without getting in the way, from subtle accents to wild-ass Hendrixian leads.
The sound crew had things dialed in dead-nuts-on for Port City – things were powerful and full, but never cluttered. (A tribute to both the hands on the board and Port City’s acoustics.) Whether it be snapped-out rolls of notes from Dave Johnston’s banjo, easy runs up the guitar neck by Adam Aijala, or marrow-humming bass excursions by Kaufmann, it was all right there for the listening.
One of the many great things about Yonder is they have plenty of depth on the vocalist bench and the Port City night was a good example. There was everything from the happy-go-lucky sweetness of “Pockets” (sung by Aijala) and “Dreams” (with each member taking a verse) to Johnston’s ominous delivery of “Fingerprint” and the buoyant stoner scat at the end of “Holdin’” by Kaufmann and Austin.
And speaking of Jeff Austin: his energy saturated the hall. He laughed; he smiled; he bellowed; he wailed and roared and hooted. He leaped, crouched, scooted, hopped, spun around, leaned wayyyyy back and charged the edge of the stage in an R. Crumb “Keep On Truckin’” pose, all the while playing the guts out of his little mando. And if Austin wasn’t already beaming enough over the sonic exploits of his bandmates, he looked like he was about to start speaking in tongues when the evening’s other surprise guests were revealed. Guitarists Ethan James and Dan Broder, Austin and Johnston’s former co-conspirators in The Bluegrassholes, joined in the fun for the start of the second set, turning the Port City stage into one big eclectically-flavored picking circle. (The group ran through “Little Maggie” > “Wheel Hoss” > “Little Maggie”, but the songs were almost secondary to the twists and turns navigated by the seven musical brains thinking as one.)
Sweetest Moment: Ben Kaufmann laughingly admitting that he was “living my dream” as he strapped on an electric bass midway through the second set. “We put this song to bed for a while and didn’t play it,” he told the crowd. “But I realized that it makes me incredibly happy every time we do.” A quick lean into the tuner and then he spun around as Austin began the opening chug to “Complicated”. The version on The Show may include a big ol’ walloping drum sound, but the Port City version rocked with a built-in percussive vibe of its own. Kaufmann’s vocal was pure soul; Austin and Johnston held down the engine room; Angor led the solo up into the sky, where Aijala took over the controls with lovely flutters, glides, and dips, piloting things back down for the final verse. Nice.
Weirdest Moment: Jeff Austin’s lengthy “Don’t be scared …” ramble during “Follow Me To The Riverside” which felt like a cross between Jeff Tweedy’s mental breakdown at the end of “Misunderstood” and one of Jim Morrison’s creepier Lizard King raps … only friendlier. Sorta. Fortunately, this was tucked into the middle of an extended “Peace Of Mind” > “Angel” > “Riverside” > “Angel” > “Peace Of Mind” passage; by the time the trip was over, the monster was back in the box.
Moment Of Sheer Joy: Returning for the encore, Adam Aijala kicked off a guitar groove that sounded like the intro to “China Cat Sunflower” with a twist. By the time the whole band folded in behind him, the parts and pieces germinated and bloomed into … “They Love Each Other”! There was nothing left do to at Port City but smile, smile, smile.