Catching hometown jamgrass legends Yonder Mountain String Band has become a Denver holiday tradition, as the band has performed New Year's Eve concerts here every year for the better part of the last decade. From electric performances at the Paramount Theater, a supporting/collaborative effort last year with Widespread Panic at the Pepsi Center, to multiple showings at the Fillmore Auditorium the band has routinely and successfully rung in each New Year with the Colorado faithful.
This year was no different as the band performed three nights in Boulder/Denver to close out 2009 in the usual fashion. However, this year's run would prove to be bittersweet, as the quartet announced shortly before the shows that this would be the last year they would play in Colorado for New Year's Eve for the foreseeable future.
In a recent article with the Denver Post, front man and mandolin freak Jeff Austin gave some insight on the band's decision. "It's getting a little crowded here for New Year's Eve. For a while, there wasn't as much going on — when we'd play a show, everybody was coming into town to see us. But last year we played with Widespread Panic for two nights at the Pepsi Center, and this year, the floodgates have opened. You have a lot of bands that live outside of this area, like STS9 and Panic, where Colorado is their biggest market outside of their own home. We may have to go somewhere else."
Thus, it appears that although the band is still wildly popular here, they are looking for other opportunities to share the NYE experience. It shouldn't be all that surprising really, since the recession has made it harder for bands to sell out venues. But more importantly, Colorado has become the live music mecca west of the Mississippi River and therefore has fostered strong competition amongst the many acts vying to sell tickets. Fans in the Boulder/Denver area had numerous choices for music this season including Sound Tribe Sector 9, Hot Buttered Rum, The Motet, The Meters Experience, The Jerry Garcia Band, Leftover Salmon, The Greyboy Allstars, and many more.
Such groups tend to attract many of the same jamband fans, and there are just not enough of them to fill seats. Obviously this is more of a problem for the artists, as fans relish the options provided to them on the biggest live music evening of each year.
The issue became obvious as Yonder Mountain took to the stage on the first of their two-night run at the Fillmore Auditorium on December 30th. What is normally a sold out affair was probably at only 70% capacity. Though it provided a more comfortable and intimate performance for fans (very few lines for the bathrooms or beer stands), it likely generated little ticket revenue. However, this did not detract the band and their fans in attendance from putting forth the usual energy seen at past performances. If this was to be Yonder's final NYE run in Denver, the band made sure those who witnessed it would not soon forget.
Supporting acts The Wood Brothers and The Travelin' McCourys warmed up the crowd with respective takes on jazz and old time bluegrass, before YMSB took to the stage with massive applause from the near two thousand folks who showed up. There was a definite feeling that this would be no ordinary show, and the boys made sure of that.
To spice up the performance, the group invited longtime collaborator Darol Anger (fiddle) to join them for the evening, giving them a richer sound they sometimes lack. It's too bad Darol is not a permanent member of this group because his fiddle playing is sublime, and he might be the missing ingredient that the four-piece need to further progress.
Visually the band splashed textured layers of color behind the stage, while light towers strategically placed around the venue and amongst the crowd lit up the venue and enhanced the entire party atmosphere.
The first set began with smooth renditions of "Out of the Blue", "Catch a Criminal", and "Loved You Enough" to name a few. Jeff Austin was his usual energetic self, cringing through vocals and all but molesting his mandolin. And he received fantastic support from Dave Johnston on banjo for these songs, whose playing was heavily featured throughout most of set one.
However the show did not really pick up until a smoky version of "Pride of Alabama" eventually led into the bust out of "If There's Still Ramblin' in the Rambler (Let Him Go)". At this point the band welcomed the members of the Travelin' McCourys on stage to help them with this number. Fans were tickled pink (or blue?) at seeing 2 banjos, 2 fiddles, 2 mandolins, and more on stage jamming all at once. The interplay was exciting, and seeing the battles between Jason Carter and Darol Anger, Ronnie McCoury and Jeff Austin, as well as Rob McCoury and Dave Johnston was a bluegrass lover's wet dream indeed.
The massive ensemble even managed to sandwich a psychedelic "Kentucky Mandolin" inside the jam, which was also joined by the evening's emcee, actor/comedian John DiMaggio (Futurama's "Bender"), who lent his beatbox skills to the funky number.
Set one closed on such a high note, it was hard to figure out how the band might top it. But as they have done in countless performances before, they dominated the evening with the second set. Foot-stomping versions of "Free to Run", "Little Rabbit", and "Rain Still Falls" started things off and gave way to the show's strongest grouping of music, which was again highlighted by the addition of the Travelin' McCourys.
Countless solos and duels anchored the superb showing of "Snow on the Pines > Follow Me Down to the Riverside > Snow on the Pines". The jams were fiery and completely off the hook, with each member trying to outshine the next. Though the entire show was worthy of Yonder lore, this twenty-five minute section was worth the price of admission alone. Mind-blowing!
The evening concluded with an encore performance of the older favorite "Steep Grades, Sharp Curves". It was a fantastic end to a joyous evening of that old familiar feeling, and was a perfect prelude to the group's last New Years Eve show in Colorado for awhile. All in all, the older favorites were the trophy winners this night. Fitting, since it was those older songs that helped them build a devoted fan base over the years that eventually propelled the band from tiny bars to large auditoriums such as this one.
Traditions, supposedly, are meant to be broken. Therefore the band now seems set to spread the year-end wealth around for the next decade, and lucky fans in those select cities should be excited to experience what those in Colorado were graced with for so many years over the last decade.