Raucous Crowd Helps Yonder Start Tour Off Right

Wednesdays in a college town are usually nothing to get excited over. Crowds are sparse, bars are mellow and you never have to wait too long for a drink. Townies have to work in the morning. Students have books to read and studying to do so that most of the work can be out of the way when the unofficial start of the weekend, Thursday night, rolls around.

But somebody forgot to tell the crowd at the Blue Note that they were supposed to take it easy. Yonder Mountain String Band was back in town again.

The wild, beer and whiskey-soaked crowd that had jostled its way into the theater's dark, cramped quarters was anxious for a hoedown, and they delivered a fun show that had the throng shouting, whistling and stomping along.

There were several shining moments throughout, and the throng was often whipped into a frenzy in response to occasional flashes of ferocious jamming, but the show lacked the true flow that is achieved most other nights at a Yonder show, including each of their previous Blue Note appearances

This was Yonder's fourth show in Columbia, though it was the first time they had kicked off a tour here. Maybe they weren't warmed up enough yet after a full month off stage, or maybe, for whatever reason, they didn't want to show their hand too early, but it seemed like the band kept the throttle on cruise control most of the night when they had several chances to shift into high gear and force the frenetic horde to keep pace.

The show started off with a bang, as the Benny Galloway composition "Years With Rose" included a slow, meandering jam which segued right into the first dust-kicker of the evening, bassist Ben Kaufmann's "Bolton Stretch," a song from his popular Sheriff Saga story.

This combo put the crowd into full rage mode, and they kept up the energy for a few more songs, including a sing-along with Kaufmann on "40 Miles From Denver." The first highlight of the night followed: a cover of the Beatles' "Only a Northern Song," which has been a staple of Yonder's sets for years.

This tune allowed banjo player Dave Johnston, who once was pegged by fans as the weak link within the quartet, the first chance to showcase his skills during a fantastic jam. Johnston has improved dramatically, however, in only a couple of years, and this improvement was evident as he was on fire all night long. It was never more evident than during "Northern Song," however, which really hyped up the crowd.

This was the band's first missed opportunity to play off the swirl of energy in the theater. The crowd was hooting, hollering and essentially begging for another chance to stomp their feet, but the band opted for the mid-tempo "Ain't Been Myself in Years," which left the audience somewhat dispirited.

All was forgiven at the end of the set, though, when the band launched into their anything but traditional take on Bill Monroe's "Kentucky Mandolin," featuring Kaufmann's almost funky bass line dropping in and fading out beneath the melodies of mandolinist Jeff Austin.

This led into the fan favorite "If There's Still Ramblin' in the Rambler (Let Him Go)," with the newest Saga tune, the bouncy "Catch a Criminal" sandwiched in between. This gave the crowd one last chance to kick up their heels before set break, and shout along with the band, paying homage to their once favorite liquor: "He'll meet you at the ballet/after just one more Jagermeister shot."

As Austin has said on several occasions, the mid-song shot has changed from Jagermeister to tequila, but, either way, the song was appropriate given the evening's aura.

The momentum continued as the freaks and musicians gathered for the second set, with the band launching into Todd Snider's "Sideshow Blues." This segued into the mid-tempo instrumental "Elzic's Farewell," with Austin again weaving his melody through layers of sound.

This was one of the few segues employed by the band throughout the show, which is a departure for them that contributed to this show's lack of flow. While the band often likes to seamlessly flow in and out of songs throughout both sets, this show had a lot of stand alone songs that gave it an uneven, sometimes even jerky feel.

That jerkiness wasn't a problem here, however, as "Elzic's" was followed by two outstanding compositions, both odes to the fairer sex: guitarist Adam Aijala's "Another Day," and Johnston's "Just the Same."

The newer hit "How Bout You" got the crowd happily singing along again, before the band dropped the hammer for the night: a monster, stand alone version of the jam vehicle "Snow on the Pines."

Usually, one would expect a "Pines" in this spot to be split up and finished later, with one or several songs in between. But the band gave the Blue Note crowd a rare treat, wandering through each section of the song all at once, stretching each one seemingly as far as it could go. From the minimalist, slow-building intro to the first section of verses, into a rollercoaster of a jam that carried the crowd on a long, slow ascension toward a blistering, even thundering peak section that had the place shaking. Then they brought everyone back down to earth with a slow breakdown that led back into the refrain.  

"Pines" was a true picture of the sheer power that these men can create with nothing but four measly acoustic stringed instruments, and the roaring ovation from the crowd had one thinking that the roof on the old theater had met its match.

But, as they had done earlier, the band killed the energy with the slow "I'd Like Off," a fine song in a terrible spot. A "Peace of Mind" or "Ten" in this spot would have sent the already manic crowd into the stratosphere, but instead the room quickly deflated like a balloon.

And, as in the first set, it took a few songs for the energy to build back up, with the older upbeat tune "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" and the fan favorite "Town" preparing everyone for an intense end to the set.

Kaufmann's "My Gal" allowed each member to strut their stuff in an opening solo—Ajaila, as he often does, threw in a distorted snippet of Metallica's "Sanitarium" — and the crowd was quickly thrown back into a frenzy, jumping, twirling and shouting along with the song.

Yonder usually ends their shows with a long, seamless stretch of songs, and tonight was no exception, though it would be the first time all night that more than two songs would combine.

The heavy, ominous "Angel" is truly an example of a newgrass band playing a rock song, from the slow, almost dirge-like beginning to a frenetic middle section and then back again.

This built beautifully into the aforementioned "Ten," a song that is only a few years old but has already taken its place among the great jam vehicles within Yonder's catalog. This version provided to be the final highlight of the show, with Johnston, Aijala and Austin taking turns shredding, daring everybody else to keep up, the jam breaking down into a whisper before launching again. 

The rowdy traditional Raleigh and Spencer followed without a moment's notice, and, though played often, it never seems to get old. The crowd appreciated the chance to keep kicking up their heels as the show ended, before the band sent everybody off with the funky "Crow Black Chicken."  

Truthfully, although the band's song selection prevented the show from taking off like it could have, they provided more than enough worthwhile moments. They were just getting back to work, after all.

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