YMSB find redemption in Boston
A review of Yonder Mountain String Band at the Somerville Theatre on October 9
The crowd outside the Somerville Theatre was a big one as Yonder Mountain String Band’s sold out performance neared its starting time. Pairs of eager fans lingered around the box office hoping to score an extra ticket from those lucky enough to have acquired them, offering up to one hundred dollars for the privilege of seeing the band perform. Those with ticket-in-hand simply mingled outside with their fellow concert-goers, showing off Grateful Dead tattoos, stroking their neckbeards thoughtfully as they considered whether to travel to Virginia for Phish’s reunion show or wait patiently for the inevitable New England gig.
The jam band scene brought a unique and refreshing crowd to town. The theatre was packed with diehard fans and genre junkies alike, mostly twenty-somethings who were just happy to be there in what would prove to be a stark turnaround from the band’s previous show here, of which they claim an attendance of around nine people. They called the show one of “redemption”, particularly for bassist Ben Kaufmann, who grew up in Stow, MA and donned a Red Sox hat proudly. It seems the past couple years have been kind to Yonder Mountain String Band, and the band that was once barely-known has enjoyed a fair amount of success, making an appearance at Bonnaroo this past summer and now returning to Boston to play a sold-out show.
The guys are clearly pleased with how things are going, strutting triumphantly on-stage and declaring that guitarist Adam Aijala’s mom and dad were in the crowd. The banter with the audience was top-notch, too. Often a band will awkwardly try to make small talk, or just say too much in between songs, but these guys said just enough to keep things light-hearted and casual enough that you really felt like you got to know the band just a little bit, and that made their performance all the more enjoyable.
Musically, Yonder Mountain put forth an amazing display of virtuosity, each member clearly having mastered his instrument, be it Jeff Austin’s way cool mandolin trills, Dave Johnston’s ridiculous banjo getaway music, or all four of them taking a microphone and singing spot-on harmonies with each other. The band did a good job of mixing up vocal pieces with longer instrumental jams, keeping the momentum going with a solid musical arc.
The first set featured the song “Rain Still Falls”, which was a huge hit with the crowd, and for good reason: the song boasts a very relaxed and sunny groove, the banjo weaving in and out of strummed guitar and mandolin while the guys harmonize with one another expertly. What was particularly impressive was how tight the band was without the help of any percussion whatsoever. They managed to keep their tempi consistent throughout the set, and stayed together remarkably well. Unfortunately the performance suffered a bit due to the venue itself. The acoustics in the Somerville Theatre weren’t so good for such a show, the instruments coming through the speakers sounding washed out and dull, not filling the room particularly well. It was perfectly audible, sure, but a smaller, more enclosed venue would have been much more suitable.
Though the band’s musical talent can’t be denied, I have to admit that by the middle of the second set (the concert went on for about 3 hours with a lengthy intermission in between) things started to sound kinda same-y and predictable. Believe me, I get the jam band scene, man, it just gets hard to listen to for such an extended period of time, especially a bluegrass genre with very similar chord progressions in nearly every song. This isn’t to say the show ever stopped being entertaining – the crowd made sure the energy stayed high all evening, and the band’s stage presence more than carried them through the set, it’s just tougher to make it through such a long set without, shall we say, setting yourself up for prolonged exposure to a jam band.
In spite of the less-than-ideal acoustics and the at-times tedious pace of the concert, it’s hard not to be entertained by Yonder Mountain String Band’s shows. They clearly love what they’re doing, being up on stage playing the music they adore, and that passion transfers itself to the audience without fail. You can’t help but be swept up by their refreshingly-sharp bluegrass tunes, and that they are seeing success in a genre that doesn’t usually make its way up here is a testament to how good they are doing what they do.