On November 20th, jamgrass instigators Yonder Mountain String Band made their way to the north country in Colorado for the final night of their extensive 5 week, twenty-three show, cross country fall tour. As expected, the quintet gave it their all to the regional Kinfolk, delivering a fantastic two-set throw down to a sold-out crowd at Washington’s in Fort Collins. As if attending the tour closer wasn’t enough to drive anticipation, this would be the first time the band had donned the stage of Washington’s and their first show in Fort Collins proper since 2007.
Getting the evening started at little past 7 pm, Dave Johnston stepped to the microphone to welcome everyone, “I understand this is called Fort Fun, this town, is that right? Well, get ready to have some fun!” With that, the band jumped right in with “Rambler’s Anthem.” With its “thirty days on the road and maybe I will be home soon” lyric, the selection intention was well received by both the crowd and band. Following the opener, Ben Kaufmann checked in with the crowd and expressed the happiness of the band to finally be able to play Washington’s. He also acknowledged the level of Yonder Mountain Family in the room and stated that he couldn’t “think of a better place to end the tour,” generating smiles and applause across the venue.
The good vibes continued with “Boatman’s Dance” and kept the crowd dancing to the Yonder hoedown. Nick Piccininni took lead vocals for this one and everyone got a chance in the instrumental spotlight, each artist soloing in rounds throughout the tune. Without pause, the group segued into “You Left Me in a Hole” with Adam Aijala stepping up on mic duties while the songbird Allie Kral harmonized through the chorus. The midsection gave way to beautiful interplay between all the band members.
Following an introduction of “the newest member of the band” by Ben Kaufmann, “Beside Myself” brought Nick back to the microphone to sing his fiery pandemic-penned tune about being off the road, unsure of the future of live music, all the while having to resort to physical labor to keep the lights on at home.
Slowing things down a bit in all the right ways, Kaufmann asked the crowd to throw out some love for Allie Kral on the fiddle and with that the band started up a soulful rendition of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” Describing Kral’s contribution to this group as dynamic is an understatement of the Nth degree, as not only can she deliver soft and sweetly, but can also swing the spectrum far enough to the nitty gritty dirty deed, both vocally and musically, that Janis herself would be proud.
Aijala’s “On Your Dime” reinfused the hall with upbeat bluegrass, winding the audience up again, and continuing the Saturday night revelry of dance and song. Being a big fan of banter and comedy, Ben Kaufmann introduced the next song as “the third most popular Yonder song in the Czech Republic,” before starting a great rendition of the ballad “Annalee”. Continuing the comedy and keeping the crowd laughing at the close of “Annalee,” Aijala chimed in with “Fourth most popular song in Guam.”
Kaufmann took the opportunity to inform the crowd that band had recently put together material for a new album and that the next new piece would be presented by the “lovely, talented, and amazing Dave Johnston on the 5-string banjo.” “Up This Hill” is exactly what fans would expect from Johnston’s tongue-in-cheek lyrical contribution, reciting line after line of the comical read in his distinctive low voice all the while wheeling out tasteful, traditional banjo rolls.
To close out the first frame, the band selected The Beatles’ “Only a Northern Song.” Timing out at thirteen minutes, this number would be the longest tune of the set and demonstrated the group’s ability to not only play in the traditional styles, but also reflected their love for stretching out the jam.
To open the second set, the band chose the quick tempo of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” with Picininni leading the way and energizing the room. Johnston was up next and announced, “this next song is about birds,” kicking off the original “Fingerprint.” The midsection saw both Aijala and Picininni employing distortion, fanning, and going for the high note, while Kral sawed her way over the top and Kaufmann kept the context of the piece in frame. At “Fingerprint’s” final note, an immediate bass solo by Kaufman ensued, and the next 100 seconds of true deep tone bliss gave the audience a moment to witness and respect the prowess of this musician and his instrument. Playing with speed and finesse while demonstrating modalities of jazz and funk, it was truly a treat to see Kaufmann give his all in distinction. The solo transitioned into an 8-minute version of “Nowhere Next” as Kaufmann laid down the driving line, Picininni chopped out the tempo, and Kral came in with her ethereal bow, setting the whole of the room on edge as Johnston and Aijala added dynamic filling. Leaving the murk and ascending towards the light, Kaufman took the band and the audience through the uplifting tune “Things Your Selling” that highlighted great violin from the lovely Kral and returned warmth and a grin to everyone in the room.
A Johnston led “Rock and Roll” was a great surprise in the set and got everyone singing along. The band delivered more than adequately on The Velvet Underground classic and ended with a big finish as Johnston called out over and over “C’mon, dance Fort Collins!” At the song’s close, Dave gave a little mental health advice to everyone by stating, “It is profoundly important to indulge your inner Lou Reed.”
Before starting up “All Aboard”, Kaufmann asked the crowd to give it up for “the Queen of the Scene, Allie Kral”, resulting in great laughter from her highness as well as a threat to use the feminine moniker as an introduction for Kaufmann on the next tour, spawning laughing and smiles throughout the venue. At its end, “All Aboard” would prove to be the longest tune of night, clocking in at seventeen minutes. This piece encapsulated so many different feels throughout its life, beginning full throttle, then shifting five minutes into an eerie vibe, full of echo, angle, and chaos, all the while the lights of the LD swirled about and further induced the trance. Eleven minutes in, Johnston stepped to the mic and began singing Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” over the constructed weirdness and the crowd just loss their marbles. The tune continued to dissolve, disperse, and reform for several measures, until finally returning to the head, bring Kral back to the microphone and belting out the last stanza in a way that would make Ann Wilson of Heart seem soft spoken.
Giving everyone the opportunity to catch their breath, Nick Picininni took a moment to spotlight Dave Johnston and explain to everyone that “you learn a lot about people being on the road for five weeks and one of the best things I have learned about being on the road with this band is that Dave Johnston will always tell you “It’s nice to see you today.” Dave then invoked the salutation with everyone of the band members, the crew, and closing with a final “Fort Collins, it’s nice to see you today!”
Next up was the pairing “Out of the Pan” and “Into the Fire”, two new songs already confirmed for the new album. The first of the duo is a great two-minute instrumental that leads into Picininni manning the vocals for the second part that conjures the unending questions of life while the rest of the band plays on.
Touted as the oldest Yonder Mountain song, fan favorite and regionally appropriate “40 Miles from Denver” was the next selection and received a warm round of applause at its end, as nostalgia filled the hearts and minds of old friends recognizing just how long the journey has been with these great players over the decades.
Increasing the pace once again and busting out another new song from the upcoming album, Aijala took the crowd on a quick jaunt in “I Just Can’t.” Short, sweet, and at a blistering sprint, this number reflected although the band had been on the road for 5 weeks, night after night, and had already delivered almost two hours of music already, they were giving it up as if it were the first night of the tour, showing no signs of exhaustion or love loss for their craft.Todd Snider’s “Sideshow Blues” kept the energy high and gave the crowd the opportunity to catch a great dueling banjo session between Johnston and Piccininni, as the two fed off of each other, both grinning like kids having the time of their lives. Keeping with the theme of “Nick can play anything,” Picininni followed up with a dueling fiddles moment with Kral, as the two cut through “Roanoke” like butter on a hot summer day.
Closing out the set, the band made and served a 26-minute sandwich with “Raleigh and Spencer” bookending a 16-minute version of the Talking Heads’ “Girlfriend is Better”. This final culinary delight had it all, the jam, the funk, the dirty, and ended the night with an exclamation point, restating that Yonder still delivers and does a body and soul GREAT!
For the encore, the group warmed the hearts of the faithful one last time with Sherman Kelly’s “Dancing in the Moonlight.” As this great piece of music got everyone swaying and singing along with Piccininni and the band, Red, the lighting director, sparkled the room infinitely, employing the disco ball for most of the tune, setting the venue occupants adrift in unison. Although many bands at the end of what was stated as “the longest tour they had had in a while” would have hung their hats up at the close of their final evening with a feel-good sing along, Yonder Mountain surprised the crowd with a little more for the Kinfolk with their original “Troubled Mind” filled with a cover of The Misfits’ “20 Eyes”, a longtime combo for the band, that once again reaches breakneck speeds and this version was no different, leaving the crowd with one final trip into dizzying heights and gleeful delight
At the night’s end, the band gave the good people two sets and twenty-eight songs of what they had left in the tank which, unsurprisingly, was significant. The band certainly did not phone it this evening, but instead played with a freshness and exuberance that could only be derived from playing to a room full of familiar faces, being back home, and with nothing between them and recuperation other than one last opportunity to do what they love. The joy the band created was only possibly surpassed by the emotion that filled the band itself, once again making good on their positive and creative contribution to this world. With the holidays upon us, this year seems to have been the one that has given us more pause and reflection to be grateful and thankful for what we have in each other and the live music experience and it is bands like Yonder Mountain that remind us that we give the gifts of each other not out of requirement, but out of the love of giving the best of ourselves and the inner, intangible presents we bestow with our presence alone.