Yonder Mountain String Band
The Vogue Theater
November 4, 2010
As the fall made its arrival, several fans unprepared for the cold snap shivered in the chilly Indianapolis air – shivering but undeterred in their lust to catch the Yonder Mountain String Band do their 1000-watt bluegrass extravaganza. There was no opening act; the band had decided to keep it simple on this night that also included a massive upheaval of American government. Undeterred by any tea-partying, Yonder took three plus hours to show just why they are the leaders of the psycho-jamgrass movement afoot in the fringes of the music scene.
Having worked their way across the country and beyond any previous limits to their sound and style, Yonder has grown into a live juggernaut, putting on shows that leave audiences shell-shocked, wandering the venue and surrounding environs like the citizens of Tokyo after one of its numerous Godzilla incursions. As it was, the historic Vogue Theater, just like China, survived the evening by the skin of its teeth.
The club, originally a World War two era movie house that grew seedy and ended up a house of blue movies and shady characters, was resurrected in the mid-70s as a concert hall. Since its conversion, it has had a parade of notables and bona fide legends grace its stage.
The venue itself is a tiered canyon with a wrap-around balcony affording those who crave an eagle’s eye vantage point their wish. With raised bar platforms behind a front stage, the club offers clear sightlines for all. A long center bar runs through the middle of the building, and can easily serve 100 people at a time. This was fortunate, as the venue was at capacity or beyond. Packed so deep and dense were the patrons, the walls seemed to ripple with the shouts of musically inspired joy, and the bartenders were as busy as they could possibly be.
Yonder has built a reputation as a band of extremes. Though they cover many a bluegrass standard along with their own originals, they bring much of themselves to each crazed note. They took the stage to guttural cheers that were followed by a simple introduction from Jeff Austin, the band’s mandolin player and front man.
With a quick tuning, they launched into the night’s first tune, a speeding "Little Maggie" with Austin taking a moment to stretch out the lyrics and take the song to an amusingly comical dark place. His wild energy took the subject matter of the number to a far creepier place than typical. The sinister overtones driven by the narration were counter pointed by lengthy runs from both he and banjoist Dave Johnston.
Properly inaugurated, the show dipped into the fun ode to rural life, "Town" and the silliness that punctuates Yonder’s shows made its first peek of the evening with their "big tent" happy sing along signature sound. However, between these and the runaway freight train of picking madness, Yonder also showcased their harmonization abilities with songs like "Rabbit in the Hole," a song from Jeff and Dave’s previous band, The Bluegrassholes.
Down the line they went from here, sharing the lead duties on each song freely and fairly. Guitarist Adam Aijala took the forefront on several tunes, picking with his eyes screwed shut, as if barely containing and directing the fury flying from his fingers. Bassist Ben Kaufmann, plucking and slapping the string with a grin that said all it needed to say while he led the band through an earnest "Complicated."
The mass of humanity in attendance sang along with every line to every song, covers and all, showing an impressive level of dedication. Closing out the first set with the heartwarming "Out of the Blue," Austin showed that he has many shades to his onstage persona. Along with the rubber faced goofballery, he proved that he can actually move souls with his voice as well.
A set break gave the room time to recover its wits before the second wave of destruction began with a staid "Dawn’s Early Light." Keeping the pace high with an occasional dip in tempo to keep from causing the crowd to collapse, Yonder showed a mastery of set list making and show flow rarely seen. With each song, the care put into the song selection was evident, and as the evening progressed, the energy building was clearly deliberate and orchestrated.
A quick "My Gal" tease was followed by a haunting Pink Floyd cover, "Goodbye Blue Sky," that was highlighted by harmonies and a bowed bass line that cut through the crowd like an airborne saw blade. The deep frequency caused palpitations and fillings to rattle right out of teeth before leading back into "My Gal" and its high string picking.
Bands that play together long enough reach a make or break moment in their sound. It is in these moments that their interpersonal relationships and fandom can do one of two things, surge forward or stagnate. It seems that Yonder hit that moment with a thousand mile an hour tailwind and sailed forward with a swagger and a set of smiles. All through the night, one could see flashes of an outfit in complete control of their sound. Funneling the raucous cheers back into the music itself, the Yonder Mountain String Band created a closed circuit of electrical love, and let the looping of that power build and build. Even the slower numbers had a depth to them that had all in attendance moving and grooving.
As with all good things though this too had to come to an end, and Yonder choose to end the night with the churning fever pitch of "The Lonesome Heart." Upon closing note, the crowd filed out in their post Yonder daze, hoots and hollers still in full effect. One can only hope that they took the amped up feeling of which they had just been bestowed to the rest of the world, to spread the legend of the night they had spent at the feet of a band that has absolutely become the best it can be.