Sometimes Two Sets Aren’t Enough

July 19th, 2012

Yonder Mountain String Band – Brooklyn Bowl – July 18, 2012

With its high wood-beam ceiling and rafters, there’s a certain barnlike quality to Brooklyn Bowl. So it was the perfect setting for last night’s sold-out Yonder Mountain String Band show, which felt like an old-fashioned barn dance. But just like the venue’s rustic look, don’t let the traditional bluegrass fool you: Yonder was full of modern-day twists and turns to keep a two-set, three-plus-hour show interesting. They opened with “New Horizons,” which, with lyrics about “the thunder and the lightning and the rain coming down,” was either a heady reference to the spectacular summer storm earlier in the day or an amazing coincidence. It started with a throwback-bluegrass feel, like the room was doused in old black and white. And like Dorothy’s traditional Kansas, the music somersaulted and spun until the audience wasn’t sure which way was up, before the tune finally landed in a long instrumental breakdown, blooming in full Technicolor.

Many deft stretches of four-instrument interplay later, the group masterfully segued back into “New Horizons” as the dancing crowd gasped in awe and wildly cheered. From there the table was set for a show filled with a nice balance of straightforward bluegrass and more progressive excursions. Each member—Jeff Austin on mandolin, Adam Aijala on guitar, Ben Kaufmann on bass and Dave Johnston on banjo—took his turn in the spotlight, providing lead vocals, taking solos and spearheading the improvisation. They were four swimmers in a 4×400 medley relay, each bringing different skills and sounds to the mix. The first set ended strongly with Austin leading them into dark territory on “Follow Me Down to the Riverside,” which stretched out and skillfully came back.

The crowd barely thinned for the second set, which was much like the first, but with a rowdier band playing to a rowdier audience. Shorter, song-oriented material made way for long instrumental stretches. The highlight block was midway through with “Wind’s on Fire” going straight into a more Irish folkie kind of thing with “Cuckoo’s Nest” that disintegrated into a spacey duo jam between Austin and Aijala, disco lights providing an eternally spinning starry sky over the crowd. Eventually the circle was completed as, once again, the band showed extreme skill, hitting the return to “Wind’s on Fire” like a master craftsman hitting the proverbial nail on the head. As the clock hit midnight, the show came to an end, but Yonder Mountain left no doubt of a return to Brooklyn and, as Austin promised to the packed house, next time for “more than one night.” —A. Stein