Photos by Lori Sky Twohy
We all know that Yonder Mountain String Band is a powerhouse of talent. In their own subcategory they’ve created what is known as “jam-grass”, they showed up on night 1 at the Orange Peel to blow some minds and take names. A blustery cold night gave way to the first night of 2 since their show in Asheville of February last year when they came bringing the noise with The Infamous Stringdusters. The graced the stage on January 25th to remind Asheville what they’re all about.
The opening band, Lake Street Dive, caught the attention of the crowd with their serious capability to play their instruments. The bait that eventually reeled in the crowd was singer /songwriter, Rachael Price with her forthright, diva -driven voice. Beginning with catchy songs that are open-hearted and inquisitive, this northeastern quartet proceeds to inject them with an irresistible blend of abandon and precision. Composed of drummer Mike Calabrese, bassist Bridget Kearney, vocalist Rachael Price, and trumpet-wielding guitarist Mike “McDuck” Olson, Lake Street Dive encompasses a myriad of possibilities within its members’ collective experiences, and the resultant music is a vivid, largely acoustic, groove-driven strain of indie-pop. A very different feel from the plethora of folky music performed by people who look like they were moonlighting from their regular gigs as civil war re-enactors. It seemed like a flashback to the early 50’s when talent was all a band had to go on. In short, this band is quirky and just plain fun.
Yonder Mountain String Band has always been more than just a bluegrass band. Their sound touches on everything from reggae to rock, and even the occasional Ozzy Osbourne or Frank Zappa cover. Their jam band improvisational style sets them apart from most of their compatriots. Rather than merely trading solos of blistering virtuosity (which they do plenty), YMSB likes to take things out there, exploring harmonic and melodic territory away from the song’s structure, weaving together songs with insane bursts of jamming, working through a completely different setlist every night. Usually, all those elements combine to deliver a high-octane, kick-you-in-the-face, genre-bending dance fest. Which is exactly what they did. Since my first time seeing YMSB, I’d always experienced the tamer side of the crowd, but this night brought out a secret weapon, Jason Carter of The Del Mccoury Band on fiddle. It may have been his fast fingers and old school style that had the floor moving,(literally) or it could have been the opening song. The boys opened with “Whipping Post” by Allman Brothers Band. They quickly and abruptly moved on with their set to other knee slapping gems such as “Romance Arms”, “On the Run” and “Crooked Hitch”.
2nd set was another swift segway into a fast paced hootenanny with a personal favorite, “Ramblin in the Rambler” and “Steep Grade Sharp Curves”. Yonder’s performance ranged from foot-stomping hoedowns to progressive experimentations, the precise reason the band has appealed to both the jam and bluegrass scenes. Though Austin’s animated mandolin playing draws the most attention, it is Adam Aijala’s incredible, stone-faced acoustic guitar picking that holds the band together. Ben Kaufmann’s ability to write songs has formed a solid foundation on which the band’s repertoire has grown steadily since 1998 and without it, I’m sure the band wouldn’t hold so strong as they did that night. The low tone of Dave Johnston’s voice intertwine with the melodies that come out of his rapid-fire style banjo picking and create magic within the band. All together, the band is unlike any other bluegrass/ jamband (if one ever existed) in this sense.
Early in the evening a diverse crowd, spanning multiple generations and genres of music enthusiasts, lined the uneven sidewalk. Tie-dyed hippies, horned rimmed hipsters, and dated geriatrics roamed around after the show came to an end with “Oh La La” by The Faces and the classic folk tune, “Shady Grove”. A rather concise “Asheville” breeze passed by with collective spirit. Closing the set, Angel with its cathartic vocals, led the crowd into an emotional liquidation resulting in a boisterous and sustained round of applause broken only by a mad dash to beer lines and bathrooms.
Nevertheless, the band has pioneered a bluegrass revival within the jamband context.
No band has reached the band’s heights or appreciation amongst many fans. What the band lacks in sheer talent usually becomes made up for in vocal acumen and sonic adventurousness; thus making YMSB simply untouchable.
Most shows end systematically with the crowd chanting “we want more” and the band humbly coming back onstage. These chants were legitimate. You could feel raw energy through the roaring chants of the crowd, because they indubitably wanted more. It was a perfect end to a perfect display of music. The members of Yonder Mountain String Band are extremely talented musicians, who maintain precision while seeming playful and silly, and that’s exactly what they showed the sellout crowd at The Orange Peel. They displayed their own amazing songs, an amazing array of covers, and their lighting was beyond unconventional for a bluegrass band.Yonder Mountain String Band delivered exactly what Asheville needed on a frigidly cold Thursday night, and did so in proper fashion.