Yonder Mountain String Band + Never Come Down | Sweetwater Music Hall | 1/12/2024

Article Contributed by Gabriel David Barkin | Published on Sunday, January 14, 2024

Oh, the stories we could tell about Yonder Mountain String Band.

Dave Johnston | YMSB

Ben Kaufmann | YMSB

We could talk about the first time I saw them. Around 1999 or 2000, I wanted to check out the storied NYC club Wetlands to see what all the fuss was about, and I’d heard about this hot up-and-coming bluegrass band from Colorado. Wetlands: Cool little place. But Yonder – wow! Mind blown.

Ben & Adam Aijala | YMSB

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Nick Piccininni | YMSB

We could talk about the tragic loss of founding mandolin player Jeff Austin in 2019, a few years after he left the band due to "creative differences and conflicting career goals." Or about the Allie Kral period that followed Austin’s departure from Yonder, the band replacing his incomparable mandolin with a fiddle to keep the music moving forward. Or the more recent addition of Nick Piccininni on mandolin and fiddle, merging the instrument assortment from the two eras.

Nick, Ben, and Adam | Yonder Mountain

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Ben Kaufmann | YMSB

I want to talk about one of those moments that make live music performances truly magical. Those once-in-a-while instances where something special happens to bond the artists on stage with the audience in a collaborative, memorable experience. And I will talk about that – in a moment.

Never Come Down | Sweetwater Music Hall

Crystal Lariza | Never Come Down

Joe Suskind | Never Come Down | Mill Valley, CA

Ben Ticknor & Kaden Hurst | Never Come Down

Brian Alley | Never Come Down

First, I need to mention that the opening act at Yonder’s Sweetwater Music Hall set in Mill Valley on Friday, January 12, 2024, was Never Come Down, a Portland-based bluegrass quintet. Joe Suskind (guitar), Crystal Lariza (vocals), Brian Alley (banjo), Kaden Hurst (mandolin), and Ben Ticknor (bass) warmed up the crowd with a splendid eight-song set featuring originals sung by several members of the band in turn. Suskind, Hurst and Alley took turns soloing because, well, that’s bluegrass! And they do it well.   

Dave Johnston | YMSB

Second, well, Yonder Mountain String Band. Actually, they come second to none. If you’ve seen them, you know. If not – go see them, man! Get on it! Dave Johnston (banjo), Ben Kaufmann (bass), Adam Aijala (guitar), and Nick Piccininni (fiddle and mandolin) all sing and play like old bluegrass souls, and the butt-kickin’ never ends for almost two hours at any typical Yonder show.

Nick Piccininni & guest fiddler, Coleman Smith

I could tell you how their set included fun covers like the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations,” John Hartford's "Granny Wontcha Smoke Some Marijuana," and Jesse Stone’s “Don’t Let Go” (a familiar Jerry Garcia Band tune for many in the audience who sang along with the refrain). I could tell you they picked and fiddled as tight as ever. I could tell you they had a guest fiddler named Coleman Smith and that he and Piccininni had a lot of fun fiddling eye to eye. So much to tell!

Tyree Woods (Buffalo Commons) sitting in with Yonder in Mill Valley

I’d be remiss not to mention another guest, Tyree Woods, who played rhythm guitar for a few songs and sang his own original song “Monday” with Yonder backing. Tyree only has 53 followers on Spotify, so please go check him out and drive up that count, folks!

Tyree Woods | Sweetwater Music Hall

But here’s what I really want to talk about: The magic moment.

YMSB with Never Come Down | Sweetwater Music Hall

For the encore, Yonder brought Never Come Down on stage. Kaufmann announced that they’d be playing acoustic – no mics, no amps, no PA, He asked the audience to play a special instrument: “A really quiet one.” He told us to “Take a deep breath. No laughing.”

I have to pause here and note that many of us who go to the Sweetwater regularly know it has a reputation for hosting a talkative crowd. Bob Weir notably told a Sweetwater audience once to “Shut the fuck up” – and the club now sells a ton of “STFU” shirts with an image of Bob on them. So it gives me honor to report that the crowd at this show was immediately and entirely respectful of Kaufmann’s request.   

YMSB with Never Come Down | Sweetwater Music Hall

To tell the truth, I don’t remember the name of first encore song they played. (I’ll gladly edit this report if I find out.) But after that first encore song, Kaufmann asked the crowd to join in on the choruses of “Ooh La La,” the Faces hit with the familiar and poignant Ronnie Lane / Ron Wood lyric sung by Rod Stewart:

I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger
I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was stronger

Between choruses, each of the many soloists took a turn moving to the center of the stage to strut their stuff. Then another verse. And another chorus. Just a bunch of string instruments and a few hundred voices groovin’ on the same vibe at the same moment, all of us together like one big, happy family.

Coleman Smith | Sweetwater Music Hall

And that is what I wanted to talk about. These are the moments that make us go see live music – those treasured, transcendent moments. Not being at the scene, but all of us being part of the scene.   

2024 is going to be a great year for music, right? But right there in the Sweetwater, I knew this would be one of my favorite musical moments for the coming twelve months. We all knew it.

Sweetwater Music Hall | Mill Valley, CA

And that’s my story. May your 2024 be full of many such moments.