Article by Ryan Ogburn
An unseasonably warm November night was the deciding factor in walking to the Pabst Theater last Tuesday night. I’ve been seeing Yonder Mountain String Band perform since 2001, fresh out of high school.
Needless to say, their music has become quite nostalgic. Songs of lost love, the trials of the road, and feelin’ good have always been included on the soundtrack of my life.
Being a hometown show, my friends had been talking about it for weeks prior, and I could feel the excitement starting to brew. As we walked up to the venue I was greeted by many friendly and familiar faces. I picked up my ticket from will call, walked into the Pabst and wandered around to find a good seat with good friends.
The house lights went down and the stage lights began to glow, warning people to get their drinks and find a spot. I was armed with an oversized Sierra Nevada and, appropriately enough, a tall-boy of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The boys took stage while I was still in line for beer.
The crowd exploded at the sound of the first few notes from Jeff Austin’s Nugget mandolin. My friend standing next to me in line tried to guess what song it was. I just smiled and corrected him. The song was a Rolling Stones classic I had heard a million times off of Mountain Tracks Volume 2, No Expectations. It set the mood for the night beautifully. I had no expectations of the band. I just knew Milwaukee had a lot of love, and good energy to give, and Yonder definitely knew how to feed off that.
Jeff then introduced banjo player, Dave Johnston, as he kicked off an instrumental tune, Maid of the Canyon. Ben Kaufmann then paid tribute to the Colorado bluegrass pioneers, Hot Rize, with a version of Life’s Too Short that got the whole theater singing along with the chorus. Adam then sang a song called Pockets, that had a rock feel with Ben switching to an electric Fender style bass.
Then came story time, as Ben shared a tale of playing a guitar made for Jimi Hendrix at a music store in Chicago. He said he could’ve walked out the door with the guitar for only $500,000.00. What a deal!
The night started getting warmed up and Jeff was definitely feeling it as he erupted into an epic scat solo during Yes She Do (No She Don’t). I believe he is one of the few, if not the only, mandolin players to do the “one handed chop”.
From there, the intensity level of the night kept growing. A Yonder fan standing next to me commented, “He plays every solo like it’s going to be his last,” referring to Jeff’s mandolin playing. The set continued with another original tune, Looking Back Over My Shoulder followed by a Danny Barnes tune Going Where They Don’t Know My Name and a classic sing along, This Train is Bound for Glory. The interplay between band members was real and natural. Adam and Jeff kicked off a classic fiddle tune together called Cuckoo’s Nest and then closed the set with seamless transition into Free to Run.
During the set break I kicked back to enjoy the breathtaking view of the Pabst Theater. It was three levels of beautifully restored architecture. As I cracked another tall boy, I felt it was time to explore. Some friends and I decided to get a better view of the band from above. Just in time, the lights went low and the band took the stage for their final set, starting with Out of the Blue, and then Easy Come Easy Gone. The band got a huge kick out of a giant sign that read “I Love Banjo” and Dave kicked off the next burner, Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down. Jeff said they were going to play a few tunes that they hadn’t played all tour. Two Yonder classics, Red Taillights and Idaho, had the audience buzzing.
As the show continued into the night, the vibe transitioned to more of a rock show. The lights were incredibly vibrant and captured the emotion of each tune. I ventured up to the third floor for a birds eye view of the last few songs. Crazy, a tune Jeff sang, seemed to hit home for me.
As the night came to a close, and after Ramblers Anthem and Finally Saw the Light, Yonder pulled out an old time favorite, Raleigh and Spencer. The crowd loved it and screamed for more. It was hard to believe this was a Tuesday night. The house stayed packed for the encore, Death Trip, and they devoured every last note.
I flew down the stairs with other wound up fans and we poured into the streets of downtown Milwaukee. Yonder comes to Milwaukee about once a year and the city is always ready. The weather was still beautiful, and all I wanted to do was hang out and soak up some more good vibes. The energy was that of an outdoor summer show. November what? It felt more like late summer as I enjoyed my walk home.
After seeing Yonder Mountain for the last ten years, I’ve seen them go through changes of summit peaks and hitting the valley floor, but they’ve kept going and continue to release albums and tour relentlessly. I can’t wait to see where they’ll go next.