One of the neatest things about the music on Yonder Mountain String Band’s The Show is that for all its wallop and emotion, most everything coming out of your speakers could be replicated on your back porch without an extension cord in sight. The Show is solid proof that the Yonder Mountain boys are masters at making muscular acoustic music … and that don’t have a thing to do with volume, chum.
No doubt, the album opener “Out of the Blue” acknowledges Yonder’s bluegrass roots, but there’s an edginess that creeps in at the 2:47 mark (listen to Jeff Austin’s mandolin setting it up under Dave Johnston’s banjo) that’s more “blue” than “grass” … and things almost get psychedelic for a second before the main theme brings us back to ground. On “Complicated,” there’s a cool yin-yang going on between Pete Thomas’ big drum sound and Johnston’s banjo, chugging the song along in a way that’s nothing but pure rock ‘n’ roll behind Ben Kaufman’s vocal. (Thomas, on loan from Elvis Costello’s band, plays on six of The Show’s 13 cuts.) When Adam Aijala tears into his acoustic guitar break, it’ll make you absolutely flinch with its power … without a Marshall stack in sight.
You could almost think that the boys have strayed into big-hat country music territory when you hear the opening verses of “Fingerprint” – but by the time Austin, Aijala, and Johnston each rip the living dogsnot out of their solos, all is forgiven … no CMT wannabe ever got this sweaty.
Or take the song “Isolate” – six minutes of tension that never gets resolved, based on a simple riff initiated by the bass and picked up by the rest of band as things thump in the night. Sometimes the guitar chases the bass line; sometimes it chunks along, deep in its own brood. The mando fades in and out like a ghost tapping you on the shoulder. You can have your “Bull Black Nova” off Wilco’s latest; I’ll take “Isolate” for its ability to sync your breathing and heartbeat with the pulse of the song – and leave you as wrung out as any techno-thriller tune ever could.
Don’t get to thinking that The Show is all guts, grit, and grease, however: there’s sunshine to be had, as well. “In The Storm” is Yonder Mountain’s “Embryonic Journey” or “Little Martha”, while “Dreams” has all the sweetness of a Harvest-era Neil Young or an old Ronnie Lane love song (look him up, kids – it’ll be good for ya). Ben Kaufman’s beautiful swooping bass holds down the fort on “Honestly”, allowing the band to drift from Megafaun-like harmonies to a group weave that sounds like an acoustic RatDog jam – eventually exploding into a full stomp to close the song out.
Then there’s some just-plain fun stuff, like “Steep Grade, Sharp Curves” (stand back and give that guitar room!) and “Criminal” (give that guitar and the banjo room!) – and if you need to be reminded that these guys know how to just brace off and rip up a bluegrass tune, then check out “Casualty” and listen to them pass it around.
The Show is Yonder Mountain at the top of their game (I guess – can they get better?), doing stuff with fingers, throats, wood, and strings that has as much to do with midnight at CBGB as it does sundown at Telluride … in the nicest of ways.