Keller Williams & Yonder Mountain String Band (6.28.08)
If you have never gone on tour with your favorite band into the southeastern corner of our fine nation, you are missing out. Patchwork skirts are replaced by sundresses. Patchouli and dope are replaced by Old Spice and cigarettes. And syncopated dancing with eyes closed is replaced by fists in the air and raucous sing-alongs.
A veteran of many Yonder Mountain String Band and Keller Williams shows, I was yet to see either indoors in the south before their co-bill at the House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach. Hell, I had never been to a show at the House of Blues, so I was killing two birds with one stone. Arriving early enough to soak up the ambiance in the restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised to see more crossover into the southern scene than I had expected. Yes, there were plenty of polite southern brothers and sisters, with their shirts tucked in, their crooked hats slightly torn and their whiskey drinks strong and plentiful. But, there were also plenty of ponytails on the fellas, an abundance of baggy lot shirts and plenty of dreads.
Keller was the first to take the stage, and take the stage he did- marching on after starting his guitar riffing back stage. Quickly I was reminded of another characteristic of southern tour I had forgotten. Everyone screams at the top of their lungs when the lights go down, then turns to their neighbor and pick up the pre-show conversation where they had left off. "No way Cheese was better with Keller." "You're nuts!" Where were the Kimock fans and their "Shut Up and Dance!" stickers when I really needed them? Unfortunately, the first few tunes of Keller's set did nothing to break the audience's attention from their phantasy tour discussions.
It wasn't until the instrumental hook of "Breathe" that the fans began to really listen to what they were hearing. It was also at this point that Keller gave up his frustrating endeavor to fix the loop machine and synch all his instruments with the house sound system. No, "Breathe" needed none of these bells and whistles. The beauty of a song like that, and many of the most ear pleasing songs in Keller's repertoire of originals, is the vocal simplicity, the fun sound and the good feelings that come from the connection of simple chords. Of course, Keller's set went back into the loop-happy tunes, which aren't why I go to see him. But, throughout the set, Keller had some straight ahead highlights and four of those featured each of the members of Yonder as solo accompanists with the man who is usually his own accompaniment. First Keller and Dave Johnston on banjo played a great rendition of Bill Monroe's "The Crossroads Bar". After Keller whipped the crown into a frenzy with a cover of "One More Saturday Night", he again invited a member of Yonder onstage- this time it was Adam Aijala for a daring rendition of R.E.M.'s "Driver 8"- a song recognized by the parents of the kids who were at the show and by me.
At this point in the show, Keller really dropped the hammer. The rest of the set was a cavalcade of hits, both originals and covers. "Alligator Alley" was refreshingly acoustic, without and loops or feeds and "Maggie's Farm" with Ben Kaufman from Yonder on bass was a crowd pleaser. "Floatin on the Freshies" always has a special place in my heart as one who shared in the delight of champagne powder in Steamboat Springs, CO. But, after having three of the 4 members on stage, Keller had lost the crowd in a frenzy of anticipation. And Keller, never one to keep his fans waiting, knew that it was time to bring out Jeff Austin. As if this wasn't enough, from the opening lines "gone are the days when the ox falls down" the well known Grateful Dead tune "Brown Eyed Women" got everyone singing. Keller's time onstage was drawing to an end and a finale of "Freaker by the Speaker" kept everyone singing our favorite line; "it's perfectly normal at night."
After a break that seemed a little too long for an acoustic band to take the stage, the main event of the night began. Now, I've often noticed that Yonder needs to find their groove once they make their way onstage. Sometimes it takes a few songs. Other times it may take the entire first set. This night, from the opening hard picking chords of "Cryin' Holy Unto My Lord", a breakneck pace was set and the boys found the pocket immediately.
I am a child of the bootleg era and over the past few years I have made the switch from analog to digital along with the rest of the fans of live music. That being said, I have heard countless bands play countless covers via the silver disc, but I've not been fortunate to hear all of them from the pit of a show. YMSB has been covering The Beatles' "Only a Northern Song" for a while, but I have never really enjoyed the recorded versions. I understood the irony of the song- it's misplaced and un-harmonic tones catch the audience off guard. Nonetheless, it wasn't until they played it here at the House of Blues that I really got this song. There are subtleties that are not picked up in the recorded versions. It does fit together in a complex yet simple way. Not to mention, this song gave Jeff, Dave and Adam a chance to shine. Each took solos that started in a slow, dark place and moved forward to deafening heights only to reborn in the next player's solo.
Yonder never allows the serious moment to overshadow the fun they are having onstage. After the dust had settles from their previous jams, Ben announced that they were going to play some "campy" music and a swinging version of "Shot Me Twice and I Missed You All Together" was the comic relief that the crowd needed to keep from getting lost in the psychedelic haze concocted earlier.
Next came the comfortable intro, soft harmonies, warm chords and catchy hook of "At The End of The Day." By this point the band had touched a number of the crowds emotions and had us in the palm of their picking hands. Thus, the rollercoaster that we would all be on for the rest of the night had been constructed. There were fast playing highs, and slow rumbling lows. There were even spaces for instrumental virtuoso, highlighted by a two man jam with Ben and Jeff in the middle of a huge "New Horizon" sandwich.
As the set began to wind down, Ben made an announcement to the audience that his mother was in attendance and dedicated a very spacey, jam-filled "Mother's Only Son" to her.
Of course, no Keller and YMSB co-bill would have been complete without a revival-styled encore that got everyone waving their hands and singing along. Yes Keller had made a brief appearance delivering the ban their Jaeger shots near the end of the second set, but the crowd felt teased and they wanted more. The players did not disappoint.
The band came back on stage accompanied by Keller and immediately launched into "Sittin' On a Telephone Pole". Keller played the drum machine and the bluegrass of the evening became overshadowed by rock and roll, filled with drum solos and electric guitar effects. But again, Yonder never wants to be pigeon holed and knew that such a finish would not tell the whole story of the players and next worked through a bluegrass meets reggae version of Cameo's "Word Up." Keller sang with his normal dexterity and the boys of YMSB took this song in directions that Cameo had probably never even dreamed of. Word Up indeed fellas, Thanks for the ride.