It truly was a family affair for the Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB) in Chicago last week as the newgrass quartet kicked off their annual two day run at the House of Blues. Opening the show was banjoist Danny Barnes, accompanied by YMSB mandolin player Jeff Austin.
As fans awaited the main event bonds were formed, drinks were passed, and stories were swapped of YMSB shows past. Some fans were total vets, catching the band for the umpteenth time, while others were simply psyched for their first YMSB experience.
By the time the band took stage the venue was packed to capacity. Austin kicked off the first set, exclaiming, “This is my favorite weekend of the whole year!” (A crowd freak-out ensued.) But the band did have lots to celebrate: as Chicago natives, Austin and banjoist Dave Johnston had families and friends in attendance; also, joining the band was adoptive fifth member Darol Anger on fiddle; and finally, it was the one thousandth show for sound man Ben Hines, a milestone which the band did not let go unnoticed. The band—filled out by Ben Kaufmann on upright bass and Adam Aijala on acoustic guitar—wore black t-shirts with a white screen print of Hines, thereby enshrining his milestone.
Once the first string was plucked the main floor became an instant ho-down. You could feel the floor trembling under the crowd. As the finger-picking and singing accelerated so did the band and crowd’s enthusiasm; elbows flailed, drinks splashed, and the overall energy was intoxicating.
Between sets the band paid tribute to Hines with a photo slideshow of Hines throughout the years. The presentation was backed by Bette Midler’s rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which soon lead to a ceremonious passing of a multi-tiered trophy to Hines in the sound booth.
Ironically, the sound system blew out shortly into the second set. But demonstrating their cool command of the crowd, and their innate musicianship, the band gathered at the foot of the stage and continued acoustically. It was challenging to maintain audience silence, but with Austin’s guidance the band made it possible. It was a pretty amazing moment to witness. Though the sound was back shortly, the band finished the song acoustically.
Their set spanned the group’s entire 11-year-career, including “Deep Pockets,” “Mental Breakdown,” and “Belle Parker,” from their latest release, The Show. Closing the memorable night was a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Goodbye Blue Sky.” The entire show was a reminder that despite the rise of other progressive bluegrass acts, these guys are still at the top of the class.