Yonder Mountain String Band brought their best to the Ozarks Thursday night, June 22, at the beautiful, historic Gillioz Theatre in downtown Springfield, as the five-piece jamgrass act celebrated bassist Ben Kaufmann’s 42nd birthday.
The 2-hour-plus show saw the band veer from the planned setlist a couple of times, as Kaufmann got into the celebratory spirit and took shout-out requests from the audience and also squeezed in a Facebook request or two.
Dave Johnston on banjo immediately brought the heat as he took the instrumental lead early in the first piece, Traffic Jam > Gloryland > Polka > Traffic Jam. It’s so great, for longtime YMSB fans, to see this act continue growing and shining post-Jeff Austin. Austin was undoubtedly the star of the show every show; since his departure and the addition of Jacob Joliff on vocals and mando and Allie Kral on fiddle and vocals, every member has grown into a shining role and every member stands out as excellent at their jobs.
Nevertheless, just a few minutes into the opening number, Kral made clear in her nonchalant, “this-is-not-hard-for-me” manner that if any one member is going to shine brightest, it’s her. Kral’s fingerwork, speed, accuracy, and improv skills are second to none in the progressive bluegrass scene. My jaw was not the only one on the floor as she blew minds on song after song.
The intimate setting offered by the unbelievably gorgeous Gillioz Theatre felt even more like a private birthday performance due to attentive listening by those who attended. Some of the folks up front dancing wore kids’ birthday hats, matching the giant “happy birthday” sign on the back of the stage.
Following the 20-minute opener, Joliff charmed the crowd with his pure vocal tones and Southern-style touches during a rollicking cover of “Dancin’ in the Moonlight” – pronounced, at times, “daincin.’” Joliff, too, has truly come into his own since joining Yonder several years ago. His instrument and singing skills were always great, but they’re even more impressive now that he’s clearly comfortable and feeling at home in this group. Every member seemed relaxed and in the moment Thursday evening, as they frequently traded smiles and body language during songs, joking with each other and the audience often.
Next, the band began doing requests, with Johnston singing “Rambler’s Anthem,” followed by “Finally Saw the Light” and an upbeat “Sidewalk Stars” featuring an extended and just plain thrilling fiddle-solo set, joined for a while by the mando in a duet.
Johnston brought it back down to earth a bit with a beautiful, soulful rendition of the ballad “Wind’s on Fire,” which drags none at all thanks to the fiddle it now features, lending it an almost Irish lilt.
YMSB fave “Idaho” followed, then Kral sang her infamous cover of Blind Melon’s “No Rain,” which the audience loved and sang along with.
The closing number kicked off with a throw-down version of “On the Run,” off Yonder’s first album, 1999’s “Elevation.”
With “Black Sheep” inserted in the middle, OTR lasted a good 15 minutes or more, and was a rousing way to end the evening…
But they weren’t done yet!
For the encore, the band opted to go off setlist again – and go off the sound system too. Standing close together in front of the microphones, completely unplugged and on the very front edge of the stage, Joliff sang first, a high-speed traditional bluegrass cover; then Kaufmann took crowd requests and relented with a Jon Hartford track, “Howard Hughes.”
The new album is now available on Yonder’s website as well as major music outlets and media streaming sites.
Yonder soon headlines at the Ryman Auditorium and Red Rocks, before returning to our region with a performance at Hillberry Festival, Oct. 12-15, at The Farm near Eureka Springs.
Photography by: Jamie Seed