Review and Photos: Yonder Mountain String Band in St. Louis

Yonder Mountain String Band @ The Pageant – March 8 and 9

Words and Photos: Rex Thomson

Looking out on a capacity crowd at St.Louis’s venerable music hall The Pageant, the members of Yonder Mountain String Band had to be gratified to see their hard work so well rewarded. It’s said that it’s better to work smart than to work hard, but Yonder took the road less traveled and did both, and it’s gotten them where they are today, playing sold out shows to diehard fans.

[All Photos by Rex Thomson]

While the grind of constant touring has broken the dreams of many acts it seems to have just made Jeff Austin, Adam Aijala, Dave Johnston and Ben Kaufmann that much stronger as people and a unit. More than a decade of methodically criss-crossing the nation, building more than a fan base, but an actual family has paid off in so many more ways than just financially. It isn’t tough to imagine how hard the separation from family and the rigors of travel are on a band, and having such a stellar support network of smiling faces goes a long way into making the journey that much more than simply earning a living. There isn’t a city they have visited where there aren’t members of their vast network of supporters, known collectively as “Kinfolk,” waiting to spend time with their leaders. And the love of the Kinfolk is returned a hundred times over by the band, like a fire being stoked by love instead of wood.

This sense of community extends in every direction, and includes the crew that makes sure the Yonder Machine stays running strong and smooth. Everyone has their part to play, and does it with a joy that is both visible and a wonder to behold. From Scott the “Merch Guy” to Ted on lights, everyone not only has a job to do but a true love for the chance to do it. And while they end up missing out on time with their families at home, their family on the road helps keep their spirits high.

The aforementioned Ted saw his birthday fall on the night of Friday’s show, and the band and fans had shirts printed up to honor his special day and commitment to the cause. They even let Ted pick the preshow and set break music, which led to some interesting and one unforgivable choice. (Mr.Mister? Seriously? Sigh…) That aside, seeing people gather to take pictures together, to warmly embrace each other, regardless of whether they were band, crew or fan told the story without saying a word.

Thanks to some interesting local ordinances the music had to be over by midnight, so the opening act for both nights, The Deadly Gentlemen, had to kick the show off a bit earlier than they were used to. They responded ably enough, playing a rocking, aggressive version of bluegrass that fit well with the style of the band they were supporting. Heartfelt vocals seemed to be the band’s stock in trade, with all members sharing in the duties at one point or another during both of their sets at the Pageant.

While the crowd may have come for the headliner, the cheers and enthusiastic responses to the instrumental breakdown drew smiles from the Gentlemen’s faces, well earned on both sides. Each night saw a Grateful Dead cover, with the Saturday set’s Touch Of Grey transforming in their hands from an ode to longevity and the wisdom of age to a more rousing, “We Shall Overcome” spirit of youth and hope that had they crowd in full voice. The Deadly Gentlemen exited the stage each night to rousing cheers from appreciative followers and new fans alike. The stage set, and the crowd properly primed, ’50s styled hold music and a friendly, authoritative voice boomed over the hall’s speakers, playfully thanking us for holding and assuring us that Yonder would be right with us.

Walking out on the stage Friday night, the band smiled and winced at the sheer volume of the response their arrival was receiving, picking up and plugging in their instruments with waves and cat calls to each other. After a rabid response to the question of whether they were ready to get it on, the band did just that launching into Dawn’s Early Light, effortlessly tearing into the many instrumental passages with a speed that bordered on reckless but never truly out of control. The tune is a perfect example of how their style has refined itself over the years, blending lyrics of emotional vulnerability offset by amazing competence on their instruments, painting a complicated picture that says something beyond the surface.

Flowing directly into bluegrass staple territory, the band rollicked through a set of silliness such as Polka On A Banjo and Damned If The Right One Didn’t Go Wrong, the sing-along chorus of Dreams, before closing out the first set of music with a blistering take on Ruby featuring some excellent high speed plucking from Johnston.

The setbreak was a short one, and the band quickly recaptured the energy they had started with, coming back with a terse Too Late Now, which led straight away into a barn burning collection of tunes, with stand outs including Only A Northern song featuring tradeoffs between energetic front man mandolinist Jeff Austin and Johnston’s banjo fireworks. Austin used the tune One More to state his case for “Most Energetic Person in The Building” out raging even the most die-hard dancers in the crowd, while Adam Aijala blissfully strummed his guitar and sang Pass This Way with a calm that belied his place in front of thousands of cheering, dancing bodies. Ben Kauffmann held down the bottom end on the four-string bass, providing a unshakable foundation to every moment, a pulsing beast that punctuated every song with a heart skipping power and toe tapping rhythm.

By the time the band had launched into their signature take on the Danny Barnes-penned Death Trip the crowd had been so would up that the longer, darker jam provided not only a respite from the mad tempos they had been subjected to but a chance to get some serious head banging in. Closing out the evening the band could do no wrong with a wistful reading of They’re Gonna Tear Down The Grand Ole Opry before sending the Kinfolk out into the cold evening on a up note, finishing the night with a scorching Going to The Races. After inviting anyone interested to join them on a 10AM fun run (which frankly I was too exhausted to cover) the band left the stage to a chorus of cheers that kept up long after the house lights were raised.

For the Saturday night show YMSB again warned the crowd of the two set madness about to follow before kicking off with the twisting and melodic What The Night Brings – oddly appropriate as what the night brings was something all in attendance had spent their day contemplating. Ben Kauffmann called an audible and switched tunes to dedicate Must’ve Had Your Reasons to his friend Kitty who had just arrived, throwing in a crowd pleasing Darkness And Light before performing the second Barnes tune of the weekend – a menacing and creepy iteration of Rag Doll. As the first notes of the set closer rang out, the Beatles classic Dear Prudence drew an epic response and its eight-plus minute length left everyone out of breath and ready for the break, exhausted and enraptured all at once. Bringing the bluegrass to the fore, Kauffmann picked and grinned his way through Good Hearted Woman a song about a woman’s frustration with her love’s behavior and led straight into Johnston’s dead pan delivery of Don’t Worry Happy Birthday, which almost seemed to serve as an apology and a testament to love itself. Yonder took their listeners on an extended jam letting Peace Of Mind flow into Snow on the Pines, diverting to Follow Me On Down To The Riverside before finishing ‘Peace.

As is the call of all good things, the end was drawing near, but not before a pair of encore numbers – a decidedly funky Hey Bulldog and a run on Boatman which showed that after two straight nights of full onstage rage, the band easily had the energy to go right on to dawn, if only they had the chance. It seemed there were many in the audience who would’ve stayed ’til the first light of day, dancing their cares away. It’s an amazingly difficult thing to do, being a successful touring band. It takes years of dedication, sacrifice and compromise between the musicians themselves, their families and more than a little luck. Somewhere in the past these four friends plotted a course, and obviously vowed to get where they wanted to go by taking the time to get it right and the love and respect they’ve gained along the way was earned through years of blood, sweat and tears.

Setlists…

3/8

Set 1Cuckoo’s Nest> Dawn’s Early Light> Over The Waterfall, Polka On A Banjo, Damned If The Right One Didn’t Go Wrong, Lonesome Letter, 1/2 Moon Rising, Boots, Dreams, Ripcord Blues, Ruby

Set 2: Too Late Now, Pan American, Jack A Roe, At The End Of The Day, Head Of That Woman, Only A Northern Song, One More, Pass This Way, If I Lose, Whitehouse Blues, Hi Cross Junction> On The Run> Death Trip> On The Run

3/9

Set 1: What The Night Brings, Left Me In A Hole, Must’ve Had Your Reasons, Maid Of The Canyon, Darkness & Light, Troubled Mind, Just The Same, Rambler’s Anthem, A Father’s Arms, Rag Doll> Dear Prudence

Set 2: Good Hearted Woman, Don’t Worry Happy Birthday, Yes She Do (No She Don’t), WInds Of Wyoming, Sand> Little Rabbit, Criminal, Pride Of Alabama, Sharecropper’s Son, Peace Of Mind> Snow On The Pines> Follow Me Down To The Riverside> Snow On The Pines> Peace Of Mind

Encore: Hey Bulldog, Boatman

[Setlists via Setlist.com]

Photos…

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