Spring is associated with new beginnings and for the year 2021, the wind of change is being widely embraced. From vaccinations to the shaking off of the long winter, people everywhere are actively looking forward to getting out, getting normal, and for music lovers, getting down.
To satisfy the musical desire, one of the main staples of live music throughout Colorado has answered the call to get people back into their dancing shoes. In March, Planet Bluegrass, originators, instigators, and propagators of the acoustic note throughout the Centennial State for nearly 35 years, announced Spring Grass, a concert series hosted at their historic location in Lyons, Colorado. Starting out as 13 simple shows running from the end of March to the beginning of May and presenting both local and national names, Spring Grass was apparently what everyone in the region needed, signified by tickets to most events selling out within an hour of going on sale. Instead of resting on their laurels, promoters and organizers reached out to many of the acts already booked and asked if they would like a second night on their elevated stage, and as expected, most artists cordially and excitedly accepted the invitation. Since that original announcement, Spring Grass has grown to almost thirty events, is running until the middle of May, and continues to add more live performances weekly.
For April 17th and 18th, the main event was the acoustic duo of Adam Aijala and Ben Kaufman of the national touring group and a long-standing favorite of both the jam band and bluegrass communities, Yonder Mountain String Band. Born out of Colorado and doing what they do best for over two decades, it was no surprise that this double-billing was one of the first events to sell out and the early arrival of the crowd on both nights reinforced the fact that patrons were up for getting an earful from these talented writers and players and that it had been much too long since they had got their YMSB fix.
Arriving in Lyons, one can visibly see the age of this quaint town, driving past eras along its quintessential Main Street, lined with its cobble stone-clad buildings. One can see the history in the architecture and imagine what this place looked like in days past while realizing at the same time that probably not much has changed.
The venue lies on the opposite side of town and from the road heading west, the grounds of Planet Bluegrass are unassuming. The wooden plank walled border that lines highway 36 shelters the 20-acre venue from sight and if you didn’t know where you were going, you would pass the non-descript entrance in a blink of an eye. Once past the arboreal façade, the property stretches out to the north, encircled with trees and graveled parking, leaving a wide grassy lawn at its center, the optimal viewing point for red and gold rock canyon faces that line the eastern horizon and tower over a portion of the St. Vrain river that runs through the venue. The timber-constructed, pagoda-style stage stands approximately eight to ten feet high and supports excellent sightlines no matter where one is standing, making this location alongside the natural splendor another true gem of the Rocky Mountain venues list.
Although typical springtime conditions in the Rockies had been prevalent for the past week, namely a mix of rain and snow, arriving at the venue, partly cloudy skies giving way to long warm moments of sunshine put a smile on everyone’s faces. The crowd, of course at limited capacity and socially distanced in corrals of 4 to 6 people, swung the age range of newborn babies taking in their first concert experience to those who have been chasing the tune for almost a century.
For the weekend, the opener consisted of Jessie Burns, Eric Thorin, and Friends and on both nights the group delivered an hour of solid Celtic-infused and authentic traditional numbers that made those in the dispersed crowd do their best jig and long for warm whiskey as the sun descended. For night two, the closer of their set got a little extra special as they welcomed another local legend in Bonnie Paine. Sitting in on their last two songs of the set, Paine contributed her talents first on the bent saw and bow and secondly on the mighty washboard, giving the set closer an even more authentic feel from the Northern European genre.
As one would suspect being in a region with so much musical talent, the stage for the main act for both nights was not set for a duo, but rather displayed 5 chairs and a host of extra equipment, confirming that some friends were in town and were ready to jam. For both nights, Aijala and Kaufman were joined by the familiar stringed touring force and YMSB bandmate Nick Piccininni. With an addition of two empty chairs, some in the audience thought maybe they would be lucky enough to catch not a duo show or a trio show, but rather a full-fledged, under the radar Yonder event. Although dreamers can dream, on both nights, the Yonder Trifecta took to the stage, warmed the crowd up, and filled the empty seats a few tunes into the set, not with Ms. Kral and Mr. Johnston, but with some friends from way back in the day.
For those who don’t know, Sally Van Meter is a Grammy award-winning instrumentalist for her incredible mastery of the dobro and has been heralded by some as taking a rank in the top ten dobro players of all time. Her delivery is precise and her ability to transition from support to lead and back again is without falter, executed in a fluidity that reflects her ingrained knowledge of her craft and makes her a well-welcomed factor to any stage or studio she shares by both the pantheon of players she has played with as well as anyone within earshot.
Benny Galloway, known as “Uncle Burle” by many, is a singer/songwriter who has been a main staple of the Colorado acoustic music scene since the 1970s. His extensive list of contributions includes composition credits on albums made by YMSB, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass and so many more. Although he has created so many recognizable numbers for larger groups, his playing and lyrical execution make him a stand-alone event in his own right. With his accessibility both in his craft and in face-to-face interaction, it is no wonder he has long carried the “Uncle Burle” title, as he embodies the caricature of the relative at the reunion who is most likely to shock a few adults and keep the kids entertained for hours, his wiry grin and sparkled eye projecting far past his thick bearded appearance.
Collectively, the Galloway / Van Meter connection to YMSB runs deep. Both were integral forces helping the band with their rise to success in the early years of inception. Van Meter has not only played on a number of the band’s studio tracks, beginning with their first album Elevation released in 1999 but also carries producer credits for both the band’s Elevation and Old Hands albums. Regarding Galloway, if one has been into YMSB to any extent, the fact is you have heard his influence. He is credited with contributing both musically and lyrically on over half their studio albums and was the source of the material for Old Hands. Many of his tunes continue to pepper Yonder setlists to this day.
The vibe of the weekend had more family feel to it rather than rager and the fact that Van Meter and Galloway were selected to drop by continued with that theme. The stage presence also reflected more of a living room jam session amongst friends rather than a stage production, where guests as much as centerpieces were given the opportunity to stretch out in both story and song. In fact, as in one such passage, Uncle Burle storied how he owed YMSB his life and how serendipity had put both him and Aunt Sally on crossed paths with the group in the creation of Yonder’s first album. He also told a story of the early Yonder days where a man in the town of Eldora, whose family had been there for over a hundred years, was in some kind of trouble and was being run out of town. In the face of this injustice, Vince Herman, aka “Cousin Vinnie”, called up Uncle Burle and said,” We got to do something about this!” As true to the outlaw lyrics they often sing and bringing those words to life in the material and literal sense, the two conspired to pull a flatbed truck illegally onto the main street and perform some anthem that would draw attention to the injustice and set the wrong of the law on the right side of humanity. The proceeds of the song would be the financial means to keep the man, his family, and their historical roots in place and resolve the trouble set against them. The song would later be titled “Not Far Away” and the band that would deliver the machine against the fascists of Boulder County on the back of the fateful flatbed would soon be known and not soon forgotten as Yonder Mountain String Band.
Shortly before sunset on Sunday, Aijala, Kaufman, and Piccininni took the stage for their final set of the weekend. The group delivered a single two-hour set and played originals, covers, and as an added surprise, new unreleased material. Prior to this weekend set of shows, the trio had been in the studio for over a week, working on their latest creation. Saying goodbye to guests, Aijala informed the audience of the recent turns taken in the studio to get down the bones of what would be their next album, music and lyric they had been working on remotely through Zoom sessions since December. First up was a two-part combo with great future potential titled “Out of the Pan / Into the Fire”. This one-two punch was pulled off without error and felt as if it had been part of the regular rotation for quite some time. “If Only” was more ballad in its styling and lead vocals were rolled out by Aijala with accompanying harmonies by Kaufman and Picininni. “Broken Records” was brought to the table by Ben “Jazzy Time” Kaufman and with its jazz construct, smooth feel, and reflective lyrics, it told the tale of a man in pursuit of something new outside the repetition of life. The new material dotted the later part of the set and was interspersed with Yonder standards “Monarch”,” End of the Day”, and “Jailhouse Blues”. Again, due to the family affair atmosphere of the weekend, getting to hear these new pieces without the cacophony of conversation and debauchery of larger gigs offered an opportunity for the fans to absorb the music and spoken word while simultaneously allowing the band to bring out the new works in a setting devoid of distraction, an appropriate environment for a first live turn at the wheel.
With a number of summer tour dates already booked for Yonder and this weekend’s reveal of new material, Kinfolk everywhere should feel excited with potential as we transition from new spring to the revelry of summer in the wake of a year that seems more like a decade. It was refreshing to see that the band members present in Lyons had lost none of their momentum from last fall’s drive-in tour and are continuing the inertia from the infusion of Picininni into the band and his “all things stringed” role. The group continues to display a camaraderie of joy and friendship, reflected in onstage banter and humor, involving the audience as much as possible while attempting to get each other chuckling at the same time. These steadfast dynamics alongside a new album in the works adds up to what will be a memorable summer, a great year, and a band line-up that seems to be solid for the foreseeable future. The finely tuned five-cylinder engine that is YMSB hits the road next month starting in Ohio and has scheduled dates for almost every month until mid-fall all across the country and as with any band that has been kept in the barn during the pandemic, this one is set to race.