Yonder Mountain String Band | Boulder Theater | 12/31/14

Article Contributed by Charles Sokoloff | Published on Sunday, January 4, 2015

For the first time since Yonder Mountain String Band took up residence at The Boulder Theater for its holiday run (in 2011), the band decided to play three sets for New Year’s Eve. Each set had its own motif, but all three were governed by the same primary theme. When it initially hit the stage, the quintet played an hour of buoyant, uplifting songs that were singed with beauty. For the second set, the band struck a different tone – six pieces hewed from darkness and intensity, imbuing the crowd with a haunting energy. The third set teemed with covers so saliently diverse, we listened to I Know You Rider, the Game of Thrones theme, and a Springsteen classic in unbroken succession. The three sets, in all their variegated glory, were designed and erected using the same principle: propulsion. Stagnant or repetitive jams, ripchords, and “standard versions” were nowhere to be heard. Every song, every jam, and every solo was fashioned to move forward with a purpose and drive. The only time to catch one’s breath came during the two set breaks.

The show started just a few minutes after nine with a Jail Song / Mother’s Only Son one-two punch, setting the pace, and expectations, high for the entire evening. Mother’s Only Son developed a groove so meaty and marbled, one would (without context) probably guess its placement near the end of the set, not the beginning. Whatever happened to warming up? Dave Johnston catalyzed the jam with a peppery banjo solo, soon giving way to Allie Kral. If you are reading this and reluctant to see Yonder without founding mandolinist Jeff Austin, I encourage you to watch the video we have posted on The Grateful Web YouTube page. You should view the 11-minute piece in its entirety, but pay particular attention to the two subsequent passages. While you listen to Allie’s gorgeous fiddle solo from 5:55 – 6:40, take a look at Adam Aijala to her right. Check out his mien (open/swaying) and countenance, which is almost frozen in a grin of pure ecstasy. He’s not only picking next to Allie, but also enamored with her performance. Adam looks like he couldn’t be happier with his band mate (I refuse to call Allie and Jake Jolliff guest musicians anymore). Then, if you’re strapped for time, move ahead to 9:25 and observe Ben Kaufmann bobbing along on his bass with the same ecstatic look on his face as he listens to Jake own The Boulder Theater during his mandolin solo. These are the dynamics of a band that is discovering new doors, and then entire corridors, to channel their creative energy. This is the demeanor of a band that has found renewed vitality in its newest members. Allie and Jake came aboard less than a year ago, but their sound is woven into the fabric of the Yonder’s ethos. Mother’s Only Son concluded to a wave of howls, whistles, and applause as if it was the anchor of the set, but the festivities were just getting started.

Nothing But a Breeze, followed by a Troubled Mind > 20 Eyes > Troubled Mind sandwich imparted the crowd with a healthy dose of “fast bluegrass music” as Ben referred to it. This was certainly a formative, and formidable, section of Set I, but there were even more integral pieces on which I must focus. And there’s no better place to start than with the centerpiece: All The Time. This is easily my favorite of Adam’s songs and I love how the melodic pulchritude belies its somewhat dispiriting message. Ever since Allie came on board, she has elevated this piece to the focal point of its respective set. New Year’s Eve was no different. When I heard her fiddle solo on All The Time at Kinfolk three months back, I actually had the rare event of “sonic ducts” – the involuntary production of tears when presented with a song, or part of a song, that is emotionally fraught, yet transcendentally beautiful. I felt the tears welling up again (if just a little bit) when Allie blasted off on her second go-round in the piece: same framework as Kinfolk, but totally different execution. She started, like last time, with seraphic vibrato and lush bow strokes. And then Allie accelerated with quicker bursts and sumptuous double stops as she laced her notes fervently, yet delicately, into the chord progression and melody. And as celestial as her solo was, Jake’s picking was the true culprit for reengaging my sonic ducts. Up to that point, I’m sure I’ve heard a more beautiful mandolin solo, but I just couldn’t tell you when or where or by whom. Even some of the great mandolin players sound like they’re maxing out when they pick at a lightning quick tempo. Not this one. Jake’s picking and tremolo were as clear as a bell and, more importantly, his groupings of notes, progressions, and ability to harmonize with the melody saturated the crowd with an ineffable beauty. All The Time was simply off the hook, due in part to Allie and Jake.

Just the Same had the feel of the cowboy/country interlude often found in The Dead’s first sets. It seemed like the bluegrass version of Mexicali Blues or Jack-A-Roe. And speaking of cowboy songs, the first set concluded with The End Is Not In Sight – an apt culmination of buoyant and uplifting pieces, this time with Jake on lead vocals. This Amazing Rhythm Aces cover embodied the idea of propulsion, where each musician launched forward and found a current on which to propel him or herself. Yet the individual efforts, rooted in listening and reacting intelligibly, cultivated a sonic vortex that both the band members and crowd were able to ride in unison.

The first set flooded The Boulder Theater with a joie de vivre and the second set was just as potent. But the trajectory moved away from the blissful and much more toward blistering. I laughed to myself when Adam began strumming the chords to the penultimate Dogs because the entire tenor of the set felt like a Pink Floyd album: dark, piercing, brooding, tempestuous, and undeniably intense. Years With Rose began innocently enough, with Adam instilling a slight twang in his vocals. But then something happened that took me back to last New Year’s Eve. During a sublime performance of Same Ol' River Jeff and Sam Bush moved to face each other on stage left and engaged in a mandolin/fiddle duet that brought the house down. Jake, who played at center stage, and Allie, who flanked the band’s left side, inched to almost the exact same spot and, facing each other, commenced a passionate, overlapping call-and-response which soared into an incandescent duel climax. The duet was rife with both coital overtones and organic energy; one of the many highlights of the second set.

After the final verse of Years With Rose, Allie fashioned long, tinny notes that sounded Middle Eastern in timbre while Dave modulated to the same mood in a lower octave. After the rest of the band latched on to the melody, Allie built steam with a set of locomotive triads. Soon after, the group decelerated to transition into Angel, and, in so doing, it established the mood and tone for the rest of the set. The verses in Angel were sung in a typical country mid-tempo delivery. But as soon as the vocals ceased, the band accelerated, beginning with Dave rolling up a storm while he played primarily behind the beat. The quilted stage backdrop was lit up in red and the spotlights were turned off. Now, the crowd could only see five silhouettes jamming away which gave the music a macabre feel. Adam took the reins next and picked ahead of the beat. His solo, while short, was perfectly articulated and commanding. And then Jake took speed to the next level. It’s one thing to be impressed with how fast he can play, but what’s really remarkable, to me at least, is the thoughtful and incisive nature of his solos. Very few musicians can physically execute the white-knuckle speed at which Jake plays, but even fewer can concomitantly make musical choices that best serve the band.

And as long as we’re in the neighborhood, Allie shot into the stratosphere with her own prestissimo bowing to close out Angel. It echoed the furious pace of Orange Blossom Special and, after it crested, the band once again pumped the brakes to fashion a smooth transition into Robots. And let me describe this song for you with two words: Holy shit! Yonder hit the cradle of their second-set groove in this dystopian electro-bluegrass masterpiece. The song epitomized the dark, brooding tenor of the entire set. Ben initiated with a solo very reminiscent of his Snow on the Pines openings – it didn’t necessarily forebode the diabolical musings just ahead, but served as an adroit transition to the first bars. Then Allie and Dave noodled while Jake, Ben, and Adam engraved the melody. The ominous tone relayed a trip down the River Styx, awaiting one’s fate in the underworld. And then, as if the groove couldn’t become darker, Adam turned the distortion on his guitar way up and vamped like John McLaughlin circa 1972. The heat from that solo could cauterize wounds. The sinister waves grew higher and denser as Allie used reverb to manifest the twisted and hell-bound. Jake put an exclamation point on Robots first by carving out space around his notes and then rhythmically synching with the rest of the band’s almost heavy-metal phrasing.

Once again, the Yonder quickly downshifted to segue into my personal highlight of the evening: Dogs. As I mentioned before, the entire set began to feel like a Pink Floyd album before Adam strummed the opening chords to the Animals anchor. So this choice was more than apropos. The 20-minute epic commenced in typical fashion, with Ben voicing the cynical story of a man done in by adapting to the predatory nature of society. Between the first and second verses, Allie pumped up the gain on her fiddle, lathering her interlude in a thick, haunting distortion. She did the same for the next interlude, but was joined by Jake who played a slow tremolo harmony. They played face-to-face as they had earlier in the set and the juxtaposition of a clean mandolin tremolo and high-gain fiddle sent chills down my spine. Adam then sang the famous “It’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around” verse. I want to give big props to Yonder’s lighting engineer who transitioned from a cloudy, hallucinatory arrangement to one that made it seem like the band was actually underwater. It takes real talent to contextually match the mood of the lights to the lyrics.

Allie continued to play guitar goddess with her fiddle until the piece turned up-tempo for a group jam. During this section, the quintet played completely in sync, foregoing solos in favor of amplifying the groove. Then Adam emerged, along with Jake, to connect the rhythm-based jam to the final mythic verse with two meticulous and (in Jake’s case) undulating solos. Adam belted out that final verse, which voices the path of the man who was ultimately done in by his own nature.

The band segued back into Angel for a short reprise that began frenetically and then slowed to a crawl as the crowd absolutely erupted in gratitude. I have seen too many Yonder sets to count anymore. And I can say with absolute certitude that NYE ’14 II easily ranks as one of the most memorable of the bunch.

Before the show began, a friend asked me to look around. “What do you see…or more like, what don’t you see?” I didn’t understand what he was getting at until he pointed toward the ceiling. There were no balloons in nets waiting to be dropped at midnight. I know it’s tradition but I actually prefer what Yonder did this year. The band returned to the stage around 11:45 p.m. After a heartfelt rendition of Holdin’ and hoedown dance-party Train Bound For Gloryland, Adam played the opening bars to Sideshow Blues – a high intensity song to lead into the countdown. A tech came out to show Ben the time on a tablet and, when the clock struck midnight, The Boulder Theater was engulfed in bubbles instead of balloons. Last year, part of Traffic Jam was ruined by the constant popping sounds, so I was thrilled to see the alternative.

Yonder wasted little time after the countdown to kick things up a notch with I Know You Rider. By this time, Allie was literally shredding – her loose bowstrings were whipping through the air as she played. I was in heaven during this piece – can you think of a better way to celebrate the beginning of the New Year than dancing to Rider? Me neither.

As aforementioned, this was the set of covers and Rider segued into the Game of Thrones theme. Chills cascaded down my back yet again. It wasn’t the cleanest rendition ever played, but it brings so much power to bear. The next time Yonder plays with cellist Rushad Eggleston, I would love to see him harmonize with Allie to lead the song.

The next piece, which I think Yonder began playing just this year, served as one of the biggest highlights of the set: Bruce Springsteen’s It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City. It provided one of the most beautiful melodies to dance to all evening and each musician was on fire during his or her respective solo. It’s the type of song that emitted so much energy, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Boulder Theater not dancing their ass off.

You’re No Good was, surprisingly, Allie’s only opportunity to sing lead all evening. And she made the most of it. Belting out the Linda Ronstadt cover, Allie’s vocals were almost pure soul, with a splash of blues. She has a truly hypnotic voice to go along with her sublime fiddle playing.

Though the third set was dominated by covers, Yonder closed things out with a 20-minute sandwich of two original songs: On the Run > Black Sheep > On the Run. With the fog machine going full-bore, Ben destroyed with his second solo of the evening in the transition back to On The Run. Allie’s solo on the reprise was also something to behold. I noticed the entire band staring at her the way Adam did earlier on, just blown away with happiness by how much vigor she injects into the sound: nirvana seemed to be permeating the stage. As the song came to a close, Allie teased Auld Lang Syne while Ben thanked the crowd and said, “You mean the world to us – all the love in the world from the bottom of our hearts to yours.” A few minutes after 1:00 a.m., the band left the stage.

Yonder came back out for a two-song encore: Whitehouse Blues and absolutely rousing, extended rendition of My Gal. By then I was completely spent.

I hope Yonder continues to play The Boulder Theater for New Year’s Eve. I was shocked to find out that this show actually wasn’t sold out. For all of you holdouts who don’t think the band is the same without Jeff, you’re absolutely right. But in many ways, Yonder is better than ever. I have been going to see them since 2001 and can say unequivocally, that Jake and Allie bring just about everything to the table. If they stay with the band, I would consider it a super-group given how much talent, creativity, and heart each musician demonstrates. There’s no other place I would rather have been for New Year’s Eve. And if Yonder returns to The Boulder Theater next year, I will again be counting down with them.

Check out more photos from New Years Eve.