Progressive-bluegrass bellwether Yonder Mountain String Band must’ve been feeling pretty gritty Saturday night as they walked onto the stage at Granada Theater. The Colorado-based quintet ditched the planned opener, “Travelin’ Prayer,” and instead opened with 2015’s “Insult and an Elbow,” a track whose chorus catchphrase, “stoned as rock 'n' roll” isn’t meant to be as fun as it may sound. The song, performed at an emphatically presto pace, is actually a not-so-pleasant accounting of bassist Ben Kauffman’s 20s and early 30s, when he leaned heavily on substances to avoid the realities of living and growing, he once told Rolling Stone.
The average fan at a live YMSB performance may never notice the song’s depth, though, because Yonder has a knack for sneaking serious messages — and sometimes morbid story lines — into rapid rhythms and lively, even joyous deliveries. (See: “On the Run,” an exuberant tune about a guy who loses a run for his life after sleeping with the sheriff’s wife.)
For their full house in Dallas, Yonder took that skill a step further, putting some jagged edges on both early and recent original tracks and flashing surprising glints of classic rock and heavy metal in their selection of covers.
Launching after the opener into two older originals — “Idaho” (2001) and “8 Cylinders” (1999) — the band helped the longtime fans in the crowd warm up their vocal cords while also wordlessly declaring that everything old is new again. A lot of musical groups in the “jam band” scene are great at keeping old songs fresh (their own as well as popular covers). After all, the biggest draw of the genre is the improvisation and “jams” during live performances, and the fact that shows are rarely if ever the same twice.
More than most of their jam band-scene counterparts, Yonder Mountain String Band grows more polished, more dynamic, more adventurous and more commanding every year. This gift is even more noticeable since Yonder’s two newest members — mandolinist/vocalist Jacob Jolliff and fiddler/vocalist Allie Kral — joined four years ago, following the 2014 departure of founding member and lead vocalist Jeff Austin.
They just keep getting better and faster and more surprising, and this became evident during the fourth track of the night, “Troubled Mind > 20 Eyes > Troubled Mind," played at such driving speed that Adam Aijala’s vocals were auctioneer-ishly swift, and had someone told us there was no fog machine and that the smoke was coming from Kral’s bow and Jolliff’s mandolin strings, we would have believed it.
Speaking of Jolliff: He displays the most effortless, relaxed virtuoso-level prowess on a stringed instrument ever witnessed on stage, pretty sure.
His refreshing, unclouded and understated tenor carried the melody on the next tune, a cover that instantly had the entire audience singing at the top of its collective lungs: Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner.” Never would’ve imagined that song was missing a smokin’ mando solo and a fiery fiddle, but Yonder’s recipe for “Jet Airliner” was pretty convincing.
A few songs later, the gritty edges really started shining, as Jolliff’s opening jam featured a scratchy, psychedelic-metal effect that instantly brought Black Sabbath to mind. A couple of minutes in, as the other band members joined and the rhythm became recognizable, the crowd seemed to audibly realize the tune all at once: “Kentucky Mandolin,” a traditional bluegrass instrumental by Bill Monroe circa 1964.
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Guy behind us: “This is Kentucky Mandolin?! Jesus Christ! I didn’t think this song could get any better ...”
Our thoughts exactly. Per usual, the band threw the full weight of its many talents behind this new-and-improved Yonder favorite, with Kral’s fiddle solo dropping jaws and then with Kauffman’s commanding, jazz-inspired, funky solo on the electric upright bass.
The tracks that followed each featured hints of Jolliff’s crazy metal pedal at some point, and Aijala got in on the rock effects with his acoustic guitar as well, as the band went into one of Yonder’s most outstanding and adventurous covers: “White Rabbit,” with Kral powerfully nailing every note and inflection on lead vocals.
As the set drew to a close, “White Rabbit” blended into the rollicking death tale “On the Run,” sprinkled of course with trippy jams all around. Yonder opened their encore with a raucous cover of Ozzy’s “Crazy Train,” once again proving that sometimes metal-heads and mountain-dwelling bluegrass fans are one and the same. For the final tune of the evening, opening act Dangermuffin joined Yonder onstage for a lively campfire-ish rendition of Manfred Mann’s cover of Bob Dylan's “Mighty Quinn.”