Yonder Mountain String Band
w/ The Travelinâ€™ McCourys
February 15, 2014
The Orpheum Theatre
In late January, Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist Jeff Austin had a baby girl. The band is very excited for him – of course! – but as they say: the show must go on. So Yonder announced a tour with opening act, the Travelinâ€™ McCourys. Not a bad get for an opener. Throughout the 17 dates they have been doing together without Austin, Ronnie McCoury has been filling in on mandolin. And in case that wasnâ€™t enough, Jason Carter has been adding his world-renowned fiddle skills to the mix.
The Orpheum Theatre, Madisonâ€™s most iconic, has a nearly 100-year history. In recent years, it has faced fires and foreclosure, but on February 15th, the line to enter stretched around the block.
The Travelinâ€™ McCourys took the stage promptly at eight and came out scorching. They kicked off their set with Ronnie singing lead on â€œWhy Did You Wander,â€ and â€œThanks A Lot.â€ They then turned the mic over to Carter, who stepped up and sang â€œWhat a Waste,â€ a song imploring the listener not to waste any of their precious corn liquor.
Then it was five-string master Robbie McCouryâ€™s turn and the band stepped back from the mics and let their instruments do the talking. Robbie brought the song in and threw it over to their guitarist for the tour, Cody Kilby, and he just threw it right back. Kilby plays guitar full time with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, but he has been lending his immense talents to this tour.Â He is an immensely talented multi-instrumentalist who gives whole new meaning to flatpicking. While he can run fiddle tunes with the best of them, he doesnâ€™t limit himself to tradition. Utilizing chords that would be more expected from Wes Montgomery than Lester Flatt, he tore through changes with a flair not often seen in a traditional bluegrass set. Not to be outdone, Robbie put down his five-string banjo and picked up an electric, replete with fuzz and distortion, and tore into it. After the song, Ronnie joked that we had just been listening to Robbieâ€™s â€œ5-String Flame Thrower.â€Â A well-deserved moniker.
Bassist Alan Bartram crooned, â€œMessed Up Just Right,â€ the love song he wrote about taking his wife out on the town. Ronnie gave us a few more with his high lonesome sound, including Bill Monroeâ€™s â€œBody and Soul.â€ Then Carter let his country gold voice shine on Doc Watsonâ€™s â€œSouthboundâ€ and Alan led the boys through Tony Riceâ€™s â€œOld Train.â€ They finished out the set with Dylanâ€™s â€œWalk Out in the Rain.â€ With promises that Ronnie and Jason would be right back, they thanked the packed crowd and exited stage right.
Yonder took the stage and bassist Ben Kaufman immediately stepped up to the mic to talk about how much he loved Madison. The band then lit into â€œI Know You Rider.â€Â With sly smile banjoist Dave Johnston then asked if we would all be his valentine and took us through â€œRipcord Blues.â€Â Moving through the band, guitarist Adam Aijala led â€œAll the Timeâ€ and then Kaufman sang â€œNew Deal Train,â€ which he referred to as his protest song. Aijala added his harmonica chops to the track, contributing to its depression-era flavor. The song ended, and without giving the crowd a moment to reflect, Kaufman set up a deep and jazzy bass lead-in to â€œFreeborn Man,â€ sung by Ronnie.
Then the band called out Robbie and Kilby of the Travelinâ€™ McCourys, as well as their friend Darren Shumaker, who brought another mandolin into the mix. On stage there was one bass, one fiddle, two banjos, two guitars, two mandolin players and a whole lot of bluegrass power.
Kaufman asked anyone on the stage without a Grammy to please raise their hands. Quite a few remained on their instruments. The McCourys are fresh off a Grammy win (with father and bandleader Del McCoury) for Bluegrass Album of the Year. Kilby is also a Grammy-winning musician. While losing a key member of your band, even for a few weeks, is never ideal it always helps when you have world class, Grammy-winning musicians ready to step in and help you power through. The eight of them plowed through â€œPass This Way.â€ Trading solos and feeding off of each other, the set closer went on for close to half an hour.
It had been two great sets of music and â€œPass This Wayâ€ could easily have served as a great end to a great show. But Kaufman let us know that they were going to take a quick break and then, he promised, there would be more of the same and lots of it!
And he meant it. The next set lasted over two hours. It opened with â€œMy Galâ€ into â€œNo Expectations.â€ They did â€œLandfall,â€ a new Aijala tune and then invited up Bartram, one of Kaufmanâ€™s â€œfavorite peopleâ€ to share bass duties on â€œBlack Sheep.â€
Perhaps inspired by Robbieâ€™s 5-string flame thrower earlier in the night, Aijala kicked on his distortion pedal and led the band through a very short, but very powerful, punk rock number. The whole thing was about a minute long, but showed a different side to the bandâ€™s talents.
Their punk rock moment turned out to be just an appetizer for a set that was about to jump very outside the bluegrass box. They ripped into a prog-rock tinged â€œDogs,â€ by Pink Floyd. The song ebbed and flowed, it turned and shook without warning, it descended into darkness, only to be brought back with a guitar riff or a mandolin run.
The band re-entered the box – briefly – as Johnston sang the more traditional â€œGoing to the Races.â€ Then they called their friends back out and the eight-headed bluegrass machine deconstructed Todd Snyderâ€™s â€œSideshow Blues,â€ in ways that Mr. Snyder probably couldnâ€™t have imagined, but surely would have loved.
â€œDogsâ€ and â€œSideshowâ€ were each close to a half an hour. It almost seemed hard to imagine an encore could follow. Rather than try to outdo themselves, they took us to a quieter, more introspective place with â€œReuben and Cherise.â€
Kaufman thanked the crowd for braving the weather – itâ€™s February in Wisconsin! He recognized that while the single-digit temperature might not slow this audience down, he admitted that it was a lot for the bands to handle. Perhaps it was this reluctance that earned the crowd one final song for the night: â€œLet Me Fall.â€
Follow Josh Klemons on twitter @jlemonsk