Yonder Mountain String Band: The Show Must Go On


Yonder Mountain String Band

w/ The Travelin’ McCourys

February 15, 2014

The Orpheum Theatre

Madison, WI




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 Travelin’ 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 wasn’t enough, Jason Carter has been adding his world-renowned fiddle skills to the mix.



The Orpheum Theatre, Madison’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 Travelin’ McCourys took the stage promptly at eight and came out scorching. They kicked off their set with Ronnie singing lead on “Why Did You Wander,” and “Thanks A Lot.” They then turned the mic over to Carter, who stepped up and sang “What a Waste,” a song imploring the listener not to waste any of their precious corn liquor.



Then it was five-string master Robbie McCoury’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.  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 doesn’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 IMG_2562traditional 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 Robbie’s “5-String Flame Thrower.”  A well-deserved moniker.


Bassist Alan Bartram crooned, “Messed Up Just Right,” 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 Monroe’s “Body and Soul.” Then Carter let his country gold voice shine on Doc Watson’s “Southbound” and Alan led the boys through Tony Rice’s “Old Train.” They finished out the set with Dylan’s “Walk Out in the Rain.” 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 “I Know You Rider.”  With sly smile banjoist Dave Johnston then asked if we would all be his valentine and took us through “Ripcord Blues.”  Moving through the band, guitarist Adam Aijala led “All the Time” and then Kaufman sang “New Deal Train,” 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 “Freeborn Man,” sung by Ronnie.


IMG_2634Then the band called out Robbie and Kilby of the Travelin’ 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 “Pass This Way.” 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 “Pass This Way” 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!


IMG_2635And he meant it. The next set lasted over two hours. It opened with “My Gal” into “No Expectations.” They did “Landfall,” a new Aijala tune and then invited up Bartram, one of Kaufman’s “favorite people” to share bass duties on “Black Sheep.”


Perhaps inspired by Robbie’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 band’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 “Dogs,” 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 “Going to the Races.” Then they called their friends back out and the eight-headed bluegrass machine deconstructed Todd Snyder’s “Sideshow Blues,” in ways that Mr. Snyder probably couldn’t have imagined, but surely would have loved.


IMG_2548“Dogs” and “Sideshow” 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 “Reuben and Cherise.”


Kaufman thanked the crowd for braving the weather – it’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: “Let Me Fall.”


Follow Josh Klemons on twitter @jlemonsk