They walked onstage to reverent whoops, hollers and applause, and humbly took up their standard bluegrass lineup: Dave Johnston on banjo, Ben Kaufmann on stand-up (and electric) bass, Jacob Jolliff on mandolin, Adam Aijala on guitar, and Allie Kral on violin. Anything but standard bluegrass immediately emanated from these five versatile musicians. Each commanded their respective axes with verve and vitality, consummate, masterful musicians that they are: calm, serene, Buddhist-like in their respective individual stances; but as an entity, complex, mystifyingly interwoven, delicately nuanced, and driven by a fierce, poly-rhythmic and harmonic force.
Yonder (as they are so fondly referred to by their fans) opened, unbelievably, with the old Bruce Springsteen classic, “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City.” Talk about a fantastic, day-after-Thursday throwback. Bluegrass jam masters tackling this funky gem off “Greetings From Asbury Park,” Bruce Springsteen’s seminal early LP – with their penchant for mix-mashing and recycling unusual classics, last night was no exception, as they whipped themselves and the audience into an immediate frenzy with the 1973 anthem reconfigured into a complexity belied by the mere five musicians on stage.
Trading off lead and back-up vocals, each musician took their turn to shine, starting with bassist Kaufmann, dancing with his acoustic-electric stand-up bass as he handled lead vocals on the opening Springsteen cover; in turn, Jolliff, Kral, and Aijala soloed on mandolin, violin and guitar, Kral hunched over her instrument like a wild-haired sorceress with her band of boys in tow, and Aijala’s sweet, lyrical guitar styling rooting the wild jam unfolding between the five. Jolliff, at times, commanded gritty, Lou Reed-like sounds from his mandolin, when not plucking and fingering faster than a speeding bullet or a set of hummingbird wings, with electrifying, whimsical and melodic arpeggios, riffs and whirling refrains. Accelerating from gentle to fast, from faster to intense, a fiery build-up ensued, mandolin ripping through a multi-faceted conversation with itself and the other musicians, deft fingers whirring at the speed of sound, delivering notes faster than seems humanly possible. Fifteen minutes later, when the first song finally ended, like most of the crowd, I felt pretty certain the spaceship had lifted off into Yonder orbit.
There are those fans who might still nay-say the band’s new(er) lineup; but in reality, the transformation the original members and their new compatriots have undertaken seems to have stuck. Always progressing, never standing still in the accomplishment of one genre, Yonder’s music is not just bluegrass; it’s more than “just” anything. With undeniable roots in traditional bluegrass, Yonder boasts a little Celtic, more than a dash of punk, an exploratory rock ‘n’ roll ethos, and extensive, improvisational jams, alongside swampy, progressive influences: psychonaut and sage, road warrior and renaissance wanderer bound into one, band and audience similarly intertwined, notes danced by lithe and nimble fingers echoed by fast-jamming feet in blissful conjugation reminiscent of Jerry’s spellbinding effect on his worshipful crowd. And, of course, the Grateful Dead influence on Yonder’s music and repertoire is undeniable, as noted by their performance of “I Know You Rider” during their second set, and “Jackaroe” for an encore. Jolliff jokingly remarked, before launching into “Rider,” that he had learned it from the Seldom Scene, who “most of you probably never heard of;” but in truth, many of us over-40-somethings in the crowd know very well who the Seldom Scene are, and the rich foundation they provided for later (more progressive) acts like Yonder to emulate. (The other band members teased Jolliff about learning the song from the Dead, except for bassist Kaufmann, who further jokingly cited “Sesame Street” as his influences!)
Alternately swampy, then suddenly Middle-Eastern, with Fripp-like tones emanating from Aijala’s guitar, the music swept into a deliriously dark caravanserai that crossed swirling desert sands, before climbing back up the mystical mountaintop; spacey jams, reminiscent of Yes, ELO, or Genesis, wound back into rock ‘n’ roll fiddle mania with a hard-driving, thumping bass line, rapid chord changes, unexpected bridges, and each musician taking the lead in turn. Other show highlights, besides Jolliff’s exemplary chops and the raspy old guitar-like sounds he coaxed out of his mandolin, included Kral’s searing violin solos: with lightning fast fingering and bow work, bent over her instrument like a creative genius stirring her cauldron, she was something to watch, soloing or in a blistering duet with Jolliff. This girl is smokin’, and a treat to watch unfold in her performance. Her presence suggests a very demure personality, but her playing quickly puts that misconception to rest.
After a brief set break, the band returned fired up and ready to lay more rapid twangy, hard-hitting melodies and jams on the crowd, who was rowdy and eminently responsive, peppered with a number of die-hards fans who had driven up from San Francisco after Yonder’s show at The Fillmore on Thursday night. Kaufmann returned playing the electric bass, fast-forwarding the music into a rock ‘n’ roll, jam overdrive (deep in the thickets of invention and improvisation now). Often morphing into one long, contiguous jam, with negligible breaks, if any, between songs, seamless transitions unfurled. Highlights of the second set included Allie Kral on lead vocals covering Linda Ronstadt’s old classic, “You’re No Good,” featuring a sweet line-up of the fellas crooning a back-up chorus to Kral’s sultry, powerfully belted voice. Later, the band whipped out the crowd pleaser, “Crazy Train,” which had most of the room singing along to the chorus, summing up some of what Yonder inspires in the world with their fine music: we’re “learning how to love, forgetting how to hate.” Well-said, Yonder Mountain.
With their 17th anniversary coming up this summer, and the release of its newest album, “Black Sheep,” less than a year ago, the band has progressed into a new era, united as a winged and rooted, revitalized ensemble. An extensive spring and summer tour schedule, covering both coasts, Colorado, and points in between, heralds business as usual for this hard-working, touring band, culminates in their four day annual appearance at the Northwest String Summit in Oregon, July 14-17, before heading home to Colorado to finish at Red Rocks Amphitheater in late August.