Yonder Mountain String Band 8.10.13

Red Rocks Amphitheater
Morrison, CO

Words & Photos By Brad Yeakel (Opti Mystic Outlooks)

We arrived at Rock and Roll Mecca (Red Rocks) in time to catch The Devil Makes Three, and I was pleasantly surprised with the band's style and songwriting. The trio took the stage and the front man Pete Bernhard reminded me of Daniel Tosh with Anderson Cooper's hair and Billie Joe Armstrong's wardrobe. Immediately bassist Lucia Turino took the role of driving the tunes while Bernhard and banjo/guitarist Cooper McBean provided the ornamentation. Traditional bluegrass has never been my cup of tea, though I do like "newgrass" quite a bit. Devil Makes Three wasn't exactly "newgrass" per say, but they had the variety I required. Their blend of punk sensibilities with Americana/traditional/bluegrass foundations made for a very entertaining band to listen to. I was pleasantly surprised by their odes to whiskey and love. They were an apt opener for Yonder Mountain String Band, without a doubt.

Set One: New Horizons > Goodbye Blue Sky > Northern Song > New Horizons, Straight Line,
All the Time, Don't Worry Happy Birthday, Mother's Only Son, On the Run > Too Late Now > Dear Prudence > On the Run

Set Two: Honestly > Casualty > Fine Excuses > Honestly, Rag Doll *, Funtime *, Pass this Way, Lay it on the Line, Another Day, Damned if the Right One, Peace of Mind > Angel > Riverside > Angel > Peace of Mind

Encore: brief Wonderful Tonight tease, Southbound, Rambler's Anthem, Town, What the Night Brings

*w/ Danny Barnes

As we waited patiently for Yonder to emerge on stage, the fog machines came to life, and we knew it was almost "go time." Shortly before 9:00 PM, the foursome took the stage to an adoring mass of fans. The smile on Jeff Austin's face said that no matter how many times he's played Red Rocks, it's always a joy, honor, and privilege. As the band fired up the engines, I was once again amazed by the way their rhythm was carried without a drummer. It was remarkable watching the role of percussionist move around the band as each new person took a solo.

Ben Kaufmann. There was always something about this guy that made me really like him. Charismatic, genuine, and friendly, Ben's demeanor has always shined through his songwriting, playing and singing. He was, in my opinion, the best singer in the band, and at the heart of every great song they played was the rock solid low end of Kaufmann's bass. If there was a pocket, he was in it like a thief in Paris. If it weren't for Ben, I'm not sure I would have become such a fan of YMSB.

Dave Johnson's best skill has always been in the percussive department. His soloing has always sounded slightly garbled to me. Not as clean or concise as the rest of the band when it came to taking the spotlight. Saturday night featured Dave soloing quite a bit, and while he seemed to be a little more dialed in than usual, he still sounded a little wobbly. In a band like Yonder, the picking is so rapid that even a microsecond of missed timing is noticeable. Johnson was on time, but there's a difference between being on time, and being comfortably on time. While the other members seemed to have complete mastery over their instruments, Dave was proficient, but lacked that confidence that comes with mastery. But, let's face it, it had to be tough trying to keep up with Jeff Austin.

Jeff Austin's maniacal mandolin playing has played a humongous role in Yonder's successes. He attacked the mandolin Saturday night just as he always has. The notes flew like a machine gun wielded by a 110 pound gymnast, wildly spraying in a way that was progressive and erratic in the same moment. Jeff always reminded me of a cowboy desperately holding on to the bucking bull... his mandolin. Yet somehow he rode the bull for three hours and manipulated it every step of the way. That's about how I'd describe most of Jeff's playing, and while the talent was still very much there, this Red Rocks performance seemed to be a little less about Jeff, and a little more about everyone else. It was refreshing to see Jeff sit back a little.

Adam Aijala was the standout Saturday. Countless times I found myself shaken from a daze by Double A's sweet pickin'. With a style that was clean, technical, inspired, and rich in tone, Adam dropped in riffs that were tasty, classy, and well placed. Throughout the night I kept coming back to Adam as my focus. His tone was clear as a bell, and his choices were unpredictable and well-executed. It was truly a pleasure to listen to him play.

There were a few reasons that Yonder captured my attention many years ago. Their songwriting ranged from beautiful to thrilling, often simultaneously, as they told tales of love, revenge, car chases, and drinking. Second, Jeff Austin's playing has been both exhilarating, and baffling to watch on more than one occasion. His style sounded so reckless and frantic, yet usually seemed to take the songs "off road," with such an adventurous spirit, cutting a concise line through the unknown. His playing has also been vivid, spawning mental images of canyons, rivers, snowfall, and mountain roads. But perhaps the biggest reason I've continued to listen was the way they took bluegrass outside of the confines of any traditional sense. They've maintained the instrumentation, and largely the sound, but they have applied those techniques to a myriad of songs outside the genre. They've also taken some of the aspects of those other genres and added them to their bluegrass sound. The result has been a pleasure to experience... and still is. Oh, and they'll be back for New Year's Eve in Boulder... in case having fun suits you.

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