Yonder Mountain String Band, Brooklyn Bowl – 7/18
Photo by Vernon Webb
Some folks find that the ultimate setting for a bluegrass show is out in on open field, a front porch or perhaps a festival of sorts, while others find that the intimacy and acoustics of a small indoors venue suit the strings best. Well, after the Yonder Mountain String Band threw it down in Brooklyn on an otherwise washed out hump-day, it seems that bluegrass and bowling (alleys) suit one another just fine. Throw in some top notch southern cooking courtesy of the Blue Ribbon restaurant on site, and you got one hell of a hoedown in the middle of Hipsterville courtesy of Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin (mandolin), Adam Aijala (guitars), Dave Johnston (banjo) and Ben Kaufmann (bass).
Earlier in the day, the tri-state area was hit by a storm of Armageddon proportions. However, with the sold out crowd in full force before show time, it was obvious that the weather didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The band was loose from the beginning in both their playing and stage presence. “New Horizons” kicked the night right into high gear and given the weather related lyrics in the song, you sure didn’t have to think too hard about the selection of the tune as the shows opener. Early in the tune Adam’s first flurry of flat-picking was well received and greeted with a very energetic applause. Later in the song at the tail end of a strong jam, Jeff played a brief breakdown and as “Kentucky Mandolin” began to take shape things really got grooving. Just two songs into the show and the band were already on fire and having fun. As they started signaling toward one another you could tell it was coming and with Ben using his bow to create a droning effect, Jeff went off on to what developed into one hell of a tear bringing us right back into “New Horizons.”
A brief break then ensued which allowed everyone a moment to catch their breath, and afforded Ben a moment to offer the following interesting fact: He explained that the “liquid light show” playing above the bowling lanes was exactly the same as his “last bowling score”; “tripping and covered in lighter fluid, it was a horrible, horrible time” he explained. Such is the life of a rock star. Throughout the night the band was consistently tight and locked in with each other which set the stage for some great musicianship to be on display. They gracefully danced their way through songs like “Rag Doll” while turning up the heat when necessary, as was the case with “What The Night Brings.” One highlight of the night came in the form of a “Troubled Mind”>”20 Eyes”>”Troubled Mind” sandwich that caused the majority of feet in the building to start shaking and consequently a good amount of alcohol to be spilled. After that ridiculousness Ben gave a shout out to “these 3 guys that play all the fast notes” and it sure was a well-deserved comment and echoed by the crowd. “Night Out” and “New Deal Train,” neither being one of the bands barnburners, offered the guys a chance to showcase a softer melodic side of their playing that often times can be under appreciated or dismissed all together.
The first set then came to a strong close with a really heavy “Angel” into “Follow Me Down To The Riverside” and back into “Angel”. The journey and transitions between the songs were full of rhythmic, tempo and enough changes in feel to demand a set break. During this stretch of music the first episode of Jeff appearing to be possessed arose as he went into one of his classic “demonic talking blue (grass)” rants complete with an array of facial expressions. Never one to be overlooked, Dave was a constant presence in every song. His accuracy is pretty much mechanical and he creatively finds his place in every jam with out stepping on anyone toes.
Coming back out for the start of the second set the band found themselves expressing how much they have been looking forward to playing the Brooklyn Bowl and that they could definitely picture playing more than one day next year- naturally, that statement was popular among the crowd. Jumping into “Casuality” the guys initially showed no sign of slowing down and immediately the energy level in the building sky rocketed. Dave, Adam and Jeff traded licks and runs back and forth like a game of hot potato while Ben provided the ever so important heart beat of it all and quintessential Kaufmann vocals. Shortly thereafter the overall energy level of the next few songs dropped and unfortunately, for some tunes, the chatter of the crowd increased with their restlessness. During “Don’t Worry, Happy Birthday” and “Honesty” for instance, there were plenty of people having side conversations and opting to grab a drink, smoke or head to the bathrooms. Before busting into “One More” Jeff took a moment to give a shout out to Brendan Bayliss from Umphrey’s McGee who recently had a baby boy. The clear stand out of “One More” came in the form of several sharp snappy guitar runs that Adam precisely moved along the fret board whipping out over the percussive mandolin comping.
Enticing every and anyone to join them at their family campout in Colorado at the end of the summer, Jeff used the ol’ “you can have your tent, and acid” line as bait and he sure sounded convincing. The bloodlines between bluegrass, Cajun, Celtic and old-time traditional fiddle tunes can often times be extremely blurry and almost incestuous. Given that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear a group of extremely talented musicians like Yonder Mountain tackle an old fiddle tune like “Elzic’s Farewell.” In fact, being able to confidently move between the various genres and stylistic changes of the music that they play is one of the more impressive features of the band. With that statement in mind, they fluidly moved from “Elzic’s” into the fast paced, contemporary tune “What The Night Brings” and flawlessly tore through it. The crowd pleasing “Another Day” lived up to expectations and fell just short of an all out sing along at times.
The playful nature of the guys in Yonder is something that keeps fans coming back as they are pretty much guaranteed to experience a fair amount of banter and exchange with the band, which is an increasingly rare quality in the music industry today. Before going into another one of the nights (and potentially the tours) highlights, Jeff dedicated the following batch of songs to his mom, a tough lady from Queens, NY. However, if the song selection and delivery during what evolved into “Snow On The Pines>Cuckoo’s Nest>Snow On The Pines>Raleigh and Spencer was representative of his mom in anyway what so ever she sure is one hell of a tough, high energy, yet totally jamming woman. The intensity that Jeff approached his mandolin through out the run was stunning and the fact that he doesn’t constantly break strings is amazing. Once again the transitions between songs were executed seamlessly. Its interesting how at times the complexity of the music can appear to be underrepresented but that’s not the case at all and you can just tell that these guys are in total control of their instruments and themselves at all times.