Yonder Mountain String Band | Mission Ballroom | 1/13/23

Article Contributed by Jake Cudek | Published on Monday, January 23, 2023

In mid-January, Denver Comes Alive put on their annual celebration in the RiNo district of Denver, bringing out a whole host of incredible players and drawing near capacity crowds for solid lineups that left audiences reminded what a great event this is. Over the course of two nights, fans were treated to individually themed parties with Friday getting the jamgrass treatment and Saturday getting the funk. Friday’s stringed extravaganza saw the likes of a great opener in the talented Maggie Rose followed by the powerful WinterWonderWomen. As the evening continued to get heated, Kitchen Dwellers came out next and got the crowd set for the headlining main event: Yonder Mountain String Band.

Mission Ballroom | Denver, Colorado - photo by Silky Shots

For anyone who has followed newgrass, jamgrass, and the like, few names echo in the hall of history as those who put genre- and note-bending talent to the test and Yonder Mountain surely resonates as one of the loudest. For anyone who doesn’t know or for those who have forgotten, YMSB was birthed out of the Rocky Mountain collective nearly three decades ago and from the beginning, they have incessantly redefined, restructured, and downright refused to quit in pursuing the outer limits of that high lonesome sound. With this in mind, the last six months has certainly backed this fact with even more success, as the group not only received their first long overdue Grammy nomination for their latest creation Get Yourself Outside, but were also invited to be inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. With back-to-back wins orbiting an already on fire conglomerative talent, it was no wonder that by the time the band took the stage, The Mission Ballroom was packed wall-to-wall to get the good stuff by the veterans who know how to Elevate the room.

Jason Myers - photo by Jason Myers

With a great, recognition filled introduction by Ari Fink, Ben Kaufmann stepped to the microphone to thank everyone for their support and express the gratitude of all the artists on the bill for “the tremendous vibe” the audience was throwing out. With a raucous applause, Ben took a moment to introduce the fiddle choice of the evening, Jason Carter from The Del McCoury Band sitting in stage left. With that out of the way, Yonder got it all started with “Out of the Blue”. Chopping it out on the mando and strong vocals, Nick Picinninni drove this quality version from start to finish with the rest of the quintet getting a chance to shine in the soloing spotlight. “Boatman’s Dance” contained some great dueling towards the end between Nick and Jason Carter on mando and fiddle, respectively. Adam Ajala laid out some great flat picking while Dave Johnston rolled it out claw hammer style. Before starting the next tune, Ben got a shout out from Adam and before starting the next one, Ben remarked,”Thank you, thank you. I am playing you the oldest one I got”. With that, “40 Miles From Denver” was up next and was well received as both Yonder classic and as an observance of where the crowd was catching a staple of the band’s canon since 1998. Taking his turn behind the wheel, Adam was the first to give the crowd some of the band’s newness with “I Just Can’t”. Putting pep in the step, this high tempo, short and sweet piece got everyone moving.

YMSB with Billy Failing and Lindsay Lou - photo by Brian Lanzer

With so much talent in the house, it was only a matter of time that this band with an open door for collaboration would wait to start pulling from the A-list waiting backstage. Songstress vocal powerhouse Lindsay Lou and banjo whiz Billy Failing got the first call. Contributing on a notable “What the Night Brings”, the talent meter turned northward a few notches and embodied the true spirit of Denver Comes Alive. Nick and Adam added great harmonies to Lindsay’s lead, making the vocal portion so rich and full. Strings shredded, eyes and ears widened, and hearts warmed all the way to end.

YMSB with Blly Failing and Lindsay Lou - photo by Silky Shots

At this point, Lindsay graciously bowed out, thanking her hosts for having her. Continuing on, Ben joked,” We decided to keep Billy up here for the remainder. Maybe he wanted to leave, I don’t know, but too bad, you got to stay!”, grinning over at Billy with an impish grin. Gazing out over the crowd a bit more serious, Ben described the next choice as “having always existed in the Yonder Mountain ethos. It's sort of like the great equalizer, all courtesy of a shot of Jagermeister.” Calling out to the hills, Nick started up “If There's Still Ramblin in the Rambler”. Equipped with the usual Jagermeister pause, Dave and Ben quipped:

Dave: ”Hey Ben, Can we cheers The Mission Ballroom?”
Ben: ”Yes we can. Would you like to?”
Dave: “Cheers to The Mission Ballroom!”
Ben: “It’s not Jagermeister anymore because we’re not maniacs! Cheers!”
Dave: “Pure grain alcohol!”

Dave Johnston | YMSB - photo by Brian Lanzer

With raised glasses containing heaven only knows what and a reciprocated toast from the audience, the band left the “Ramblin’” piece unfinished, moving into Ben’s lead on “Looking Back Over My Shoulder”. Following an extended solo from Nick, Billy succeeded greatly with a tasty banjo showing of his own. Adam kept the sweet solos flowing and his nimble tricks would have impressed Tony Rice himself. Jason flowed over the bow like sweet wine, the cup of The Mission running over. Dave took the final turn and climbed the mountain without pumping the brakes, eventually leading to Ben’s vocal return for the closing stanza.

Adam Aijala, Nick Piccinni, and Jason Carter - photo by Brian Lanzer

Pulling another from the band’s 1999 album Elevation, Ben remained at the helm for “On The Run”, a tale of a man running from the law because of the ultimate crime: he had slept with the sheriff’s wife. Slipping off the traditional, Nick employed some distortion for the fiery centerpiece of this one. The upbeat conversation eventually loosened and the moan of Jason’s fiddle resonated out over the crowd. Getting in on the fun, Nick set aside the mando and banded together with his string brother on a second violin and casually sidled up to Jason’s end of the stage. The two called out to one another, blended, parted ways, and just dazzled everyone paying them attention. As that magic ball that hangs from The Mission ceiling turned colors and came to life, the band dropped into an anything but traditional take on the standard “Cherokee Shuffle”. This acoustic meltdown ran on all cylinders and eventually gave way to a chunky and tight bass solo from Ben, although many felt it was cut too short and would love to hear more out of those magic fingers. Ramping back up, the group returned for the second part of “On the Run” and Jason peeled the paint with distortion as the room sizzled with insanity and split bow hairs in the best of ways. Although it appeared that the end of the tune would lead to the band’s next opportunity to get a breath, with their final unified note to signify the end, the whole, without a slip, sped right back into the finish of the incomplete “If There’ Still Ramblin in the Rambler”.

YMSB with Jason Carter | Mission Ballroom | photo by Silky Shots

Giving everyone a moment of solace and reflection, Dave sweetened the pot with his lead on “Suburban Girl”. This melancholy tale of young love filled the room with love and innocence and he even added a little something unrehearsed for the middle, pausing as his brothers played on:
I haven’t forgotten the lyrics
I’m standing here thoughtfully
Contemplating the lovely Rhythms and counter-rhythms and counterpoints
Of what is happening
Subtlety and harmony, melody and time
You don’t get that in the suburbs, you get it in RiNo though
I’m kind of doing that whole Bob Dylan thing where I talk, make funny remarks
Adam is getting….he is like, “Would you just sing the god damned song, Dave?”
I’m like yeah, yeah I think I will do it right now

With all of its imagery and warm tone, the structure of this new piece once again exemplified the diverse abilities of this incredible band.

YMSB | Mission Ballroom - photo by Lily Sitero

Keeping the show rolling, the band welcomed out another positive force in the spirited Tyree Woods. Buffalo Commons frontman and official artist-at-large for night one of DCL, Reverend Woods stepped center stage with his infectious smile and called out to the audience:

Hey everybody!
How is everybody doing out there?
How is everybody feeling out there?
How is everybody living out there?
So if you are feeling good and you are living right, put your arms in the air for me. Just like this, just like this, and shake them around a little bit, move them around! Feel good with it, feel good brothers and sisters!

Yonder Mountain String Band | Denver, Colorado | photo by Jason Myers

As the congregation raised their hands to heaven and the preacher joined them in rapture, Brother Woods took everyone through the traditional gospel sermon of “Jesus on the Mainline”. The infectious joy that this number delivered had even the band smiling and bobbing. Swinging in the opposite direction, leaving the sanctity and security of the spiritual, “Ragdoll” kept Tyree on stage, charging the lyrics and belting out the cautionary tale over the sultry groove of this piece.

Dave Johnston & Nick Piccinni - Yonder Mountain String Band - photo by Brian Lanzer

Pulling out another traditional bluegrass tune and certainly a long-time staple in the Yonder catalog, “Raleigh and Spencer” got the overdrive treatment before dissolving into the revolving groove of “Nowhere Next”. Ben’s bass drove the unsettling drone of this original as Adam and Nick’s ethereal vocals made this one otherworldly. Adam eventually took to distortion and ground out the grit as the group achieved liftoff for the outer limits before finally sealing the deal and returning into the closing portion of “Raleigh and Spencer”. The crowd left with sweat, smiles, and energized, cheered for more, the band leaving the stage beaming as widely as those they had just leveled.

Adam Aijala | YMSB - photo by Brian Lanzer

Closing out the evening with a great singalong, the band threw out the 1970’s hit “Dancing in the Moonlight” and invited Tyree Woods to share lead vocals, swapping out sections with Nick, while Ben and Adam added harmonies. After back-to-back banjo solos from Dave and Billy, Nick eased the pace and dug deep with a little more soulful playing before closing it out.

Denver Comes Alive | Mission Ballroom - photo by Jason Myers

In the end, night one of Denver Comes Alive was an overall success. Bands and listeners alike shared a great night supporting each other as well as the non-profit Backline and both groups certainly ensured that this regular weekend of celebration will continue on in the future. Choosing Yonder Mountain String Band as the closer was more than appropriate and, by what many saw on Friday, they continue to show that they are current, ablaze, and still contributing to the scene, sound, and experience of the genre they helped to create. Neither footnote nor afterthought, with all the recent awards and their downright great playing and attitudes, catching this group in 2023 is certainly a must and with an alternating talent joining them throughout the year in the fifth stage spot, the unexpected is sure to happen, making whatever happens next for the band even more exciting and full of potential.