As we enter the seventh month of the COVID pandemic, the chance to attend live music is making a comeback, albeit sporadic and in ways we have never thought would be the new norm. These opportunities are being welcomed with open arms and ears and it seems that attendees are cherishing these tonal engagements to a greater degree because of their rarity, taking in what they can and not squandering the fleeting musical moment in exchange for inane conversation better served at home. The same feelings of gratitude and gratefulness seem to be equally shared from the player's point of view, long having been barred from doing what they love in the name of safety, so much that when the chance arises for them to deliver their bottled emotion and passion, the cup runneth over.
This past weekend, The Holiday Twin Drive-In Theater in Fort Collins facilitated not one, but two, such gatherings, playing host to back-to-back nights of legendary jam grass configuration Yonder Mountain String Band. Having deep roots in the mountains of Colorado prior to their global success, tickets sold quick for this affair. This was not only due to the need for that high lonesome sound so many have missed, but also influenced by the special billing each night promised.
For night one, the band announced that they would open with their 1999 release Elevation in its entirety, an album that was not only their first studio take as a group, but was also the anchor that drew so many into their unique twist on convention, spawning a following that few in the jam scene would rival. As if the performance of an entire album were not enough to drive in the local support, the band announced that they would also be playing an extended second set chock full of even more originals and fan favorites.
For night two, the band billed The Cosmic Bowling League as their opener, which, for those in the know, created even more stir, as The CBL is none other than Yonder’s alter ego used to facilitate the fanbase demands to hear their jam grass staple take on the more traditional roots of the bluegrass genre, packing the music with humor and southern swagger. What made this detail even more unique was that The CBL has only reared its gaudy, rambunctious appearance of bowling shirts, wigs, and bad moustaches a handful times since 2001. As if these announcements were not enough to fervor the fever that Fort Collins was the place to be, never-before-seen footage, dating back to 2001 and 2003 respectively, would be played on the big screen following each performance. For those who have held this band special for more than two decades, it was obvious that the band plan was to bring it in a way that no one would want to miss.
Never having caught a drive-in show to date, the atmosphere is quite different. Cars are spread out with a space in between each vehicle and patrons are relegated to hanging out in their autos or close there by. The sound is broadcast via an FM signal, just like a drive-in movie, and the listener controls the output via their own radio, which is mostly contained to the vehicle itself. For Fort Collins, The Holiday Twin backs up to a neighborhood and so there is a regulated noise ordinance, which bars bands from being amplified. Instead, musicians wear in-ear monitors to hear themselves and each other, so for anyone standing near the stage, the sound is minimal and almost absent, keeping most attendees in or near their parking spot. This dynamic, plus strictly enforced social distancing, keeps ticketholders away from the stage and outside of a few parking lot lights, the field is dark with most of the stage lights directed to lighting the performers so that they can be clearly seen on the big screen. These characteristics of weird are some of the traits to the new return of the live music experience.
On Friday, at a quarter past seven, the group took the stage to a packed parking lot that quickly filled with audible but unseen welcoming recognition, reflecting that the crowd was here to satisfy that acoustic itch that needed scratched. This was to mark the band’s third performance since their winter tour was cut short nearly eight months prior and their first go around with playing in the crowdless drive-in scene. Although some might think that all these new factors may contribute to performance instability, including playing with a new member in multi-instrumentalist Nick Piccininni, it was no surprise that these veterans tuned up, stepped to their microphones, made some jokes, including that “Elevation was now old enough to buy everyone drinks”, and delivered an effortless take on the promised album. As expected, the album, which clocks in at a little over 56 minutes, got the royal treatment and came in at seventy-five, seeing some exploratory jamming and extended soloing to send the crowd to intermission with something to talk about.
Having a new band member, even one such as Piccininni, who is touted as being more than proficient on all things stringed, including banjo, guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, brings on an invitation for the unknown to unfold. It introduces that spark of risk that fuels the unexpected foundation that is improvisation and for a band that is pushing the limits, this is a key ingredient. What is even more crucial is the ability of the players to be get out of the way and let the music play the band. It was easy to see early on in the evening that not only had the band picked the right man for the job, delivering his part with solidarity and exception while complimenting the whole, but the crowd was loving it too, releasing waves of exuberant gratitude with every final note. Looking to the stage, Piccininni looked like a kid in a candy store, grinning from ear to ear and making every effort to fuel his bandmates and the crowd with his own brand of schtick, taking opportunities to walk about the stage to engage his compadres in musical duels, adjusting Ben Kaufmann’s hat, or getting a closer look at what the others were playing while wearing a smirk and making googly eyes. At one point, the new kid on the block jumped off the stage and went walking out as far as he could on his wireless rig and played to a bunch of school-aged children, who ate up every moment, jumping around and showing their best dance moves as their parents looked on, equally entertained with the showmanship and fresh breath this man from the east was breathing into the group.
Following a short intermission, the band returned to the stage and delivered a second set of more originals, including a “Sideshow Blues” opener, “Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown”, and “All The Time” that saw Krall and Piccininni host a prolonged battle of the bows, each on their respective fiddles and both giving it their all. Intertwined into the YMSB songbook selections were also some unconventional covers, including The Misfits’ “20 Eyes”, Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, “My Girlfriend is Better” by Talking Heads, and “I Need to Know” by Tom Petty in honor of the third anniversary of his passing. Clocking in at 90 minutes, at sets end it was easy to see that both the audience and the band wanted more, as the crowd cheered throughout the encore pause and the band verbally broached the subject of, “What if we just keep on jamming?”. The band eventually made their way back into position and performed a great rendition of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”, leaving everyone satisfied and excited about yet another night to come.
The final surprise of the night was that many of the fans who had come out actually packed up and left following the encore, even with the promise of unseen footage from yesteryear still to come. It seemed that for these folks, seeing Yonder Mountain was about the new and the now and wasn’t about rehashing the past or trying relive the glory days and from what the band laid out in its musical offering, it proved to those who had shown up to take witness that there are many more days of shared glory ahead.
Reflecting on this night’s performance, it was easy for anyone within earshot or sightline that the band’s excitement and joy on stage was palpable. The five grins seemed wider and brighter than they had been for some time. Maybe it was the new blood of Piccininni or the full moon, but it was apparent from start to finish that these jam grass extraordinaires were giving all they had and loving every minute of being there. They seemed at times to be playing for the joy of each other, maybe even more so than for the crowd, as their own faces were the only ones they could see. Maybe it was the time off from the road or having an opportunity to reflect or a combination of both, but this band musically drove home that their future lies ahead on the open road of opportunity and the past is just a distorted, subjective image in the rear view mirror.
For those unfamiliar with the band and for those who have just plain forgot, from harmonies, instrumentation, and the desire and talent for improvisation, this group delivers talent on all fronts. They demonstrate a discernable cohesiveness that goes without words and leaves one beaming, whether veteran or novice, from the shared exchange. Speaking to the group, their personalities and wit hold true to their onstage personas, being just as willing to listen to the story as they are to share it and showing that who they are is just as approachable and real no matter which side of the stage they are on. Being a fly on the wall, it is clear to see that these individuals genuinely care about and respect the value of each other. There is no self-appointed leader and everyone has an equal voice and it seems that the end point is more about enjoying the moment and supporting the creative process of life rather than being bogged down by the chains of success and uncertain potentials. From Allie Krall’s intoxicating laugh to Kaufman’s unending joking, both for the entertainment of others as well as himself, to the alternating deadpan of Johnson and Aijala, while Piccininni bounces along with whatever circle spins around him, these people are more like family than business partners or the seekers of stardom.
In the end, for this listener, the Yonder fires were restoked and the reminder was apparent that in the face of such odd times, bearing copious amounts of divisiveness, it is decision making based on the focus of higher tenets that will get us through the day. Music is the language that binds us together no matter our stance on the current topic and it is in those listening moments that we hear ourselves and our higher calling to being part of something greater. Getting to exchange with the honesty of the kinfolk of YMSB gave me pause and reflection that we are not alone, that all we have is the moment, and the now is the stepping stone to the future, which is largely dependent on our actions. Thank you, good people of Yonder Mountain, for making evenings like this possible and being willing to take the high road, adapt, and continue even in the face of adversity. The example that has been set can be summed up simply: When in doubt, Elevate.
Sadly, due to the constraints of child care and parental responsibility, I was only able to attend Friday night’s festivities and, as it is often with the wanderlust of the musical allure, I count myself both blessed and cursed having been able to catch at least one evening of inspiration, while also being restricted to just one night. With only six more stops on this tour, after bearing witness and testament to creativity incarnate, I have no worries that the band and its family of listeners has at least another decade in them of helping the world turn round.