march 2011

Yonder Mountain String Band: Jetting past progressive bluegrass into territory the band can mark solely as its own.

All Who Yonder Are Not Lost

By David McGee

Yonder Mountain String Band
Frog Pad Records

In its most ambitious outing yet, the Yonder Mountain String Band marshals all its strength and fluid melding of styles into a rousing album-length statement of fine songwriting and inspired musicianship. Rock producer Tom Rothrock is back for a second round with YMSB; Elvis Costello’s drummer, Pete Thomas, is on board for six cuts; and when you mix these two rock veterans’ sensibilities with the band members’ cross-genre attack, well, you get something that jets past progressive bluegrass into territory the band can mark as solely its own.

Yonder Mountain String Band, ‘Sometimes I’ve Won’

For its jam band acolytes, YMSB has provided the templates for several crowd pleasing sorties into improvisational nirvana. Dave Johnston’s six-minutes-plus “Isolate” is spare, haunting and drowsy in a rustic Cowboy Junkies kinda way, seemingly a tale of a gal disconnected from the real world but plodding through anyway towards the light. The mood is one of sustained gloom, but the song also has a lot of air in it--what’s not there are themes inherent in the melody that the musicians in concert can expand, rethink, reinterpret. In the album closing “Casualty,” a literate, hard driving breakup story centered not on infidelity but rather on stifling co-dependency. At nearly six-and-a-half minutes, it allows plenty of time for the story to unfold in a gritty vocal, but also includes a middle section in which the various instrumentalists engage each other in a rousing instrumental dialogue comprised both of solo showcases and multi-instrument conversations of the sort with which the YMSB gets concert audiences fired up in a wild, frantic outburst that might double the song’s running time and leave the assembled multitude breathless.

YMSB played at the 2008 Democratic National Convention,
opening, in effect, for Barack Obama.
(Illustration copyright 2008)

But the band also places a premium on straight-ahead good songwriting, and Show brings that to the fore as well. The hopeful sentiments and honey harmonies of the group composed “Dreams,” a lilting, laid-back beauty that evolves from the pain of a complicated romance into an affirmation of basic character as a means of salvation (“it will take some time/it will be just fine/‘cause you’re genuine/you’re genuine”), is resonant with Gram Parsons’ influence (most notably in bassist Ben Kauffman’s lead vocal); indeed, it has an epic aspiration that may make it something akin to the Burritos’ “Wheels” as the band’s audience embraces it. Out of the gate they kick things off in rousing fashion with Jeff Austin’s “Out of the Blue,” a variant of the formal hard-driving bluegrass opener in that its energy is an intense, edgy rock ‘n’ roll energy, a feel magnified by the singer’s ragged vocal intensity, practically spitting out the lyrics while the band surges behind him before he cedes the spotlight to frantic around-the-horn soloing courtesy banjo (Dave Johnston), mandolin (Austin) and guitar (Adam Aijala). “Steep Grade, Sharp Curves,” another Austin tune (reprised in a reconsidered, less countrified studio version after first appearing on the band’s 2004 live album, Mountain Tracks 3), bumps along in a funky stomp, a real hip shaker featuring an intense, spiky banjo solo from Dave Johnston and a swaggering vocal in a tale recounting an ill-fated romance in which the charms of the female of the species is likened to “a treacherous stretch of highway.” At 2:19 the instrumental “In the Seam” is by far the shortest track here, and one of the most unforgettable--a continuum of cascading acoustic guitar formulations shadowed by steady, lyrical, rolling banjo lines--a cool respite from the heat emanating from other tracks. Such are the special pleasures this provocative outing offers, as the YMSB demonstrates again how it has the bluegrass fundamentals down pat, but otherwise refuses to stand pat. Expect the unexpected, but prepare to be surprised anyway. All who Yonder are not lost, y’see.

Yonder Mountain String Band’s Show is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024