From the first song of the night, one could tell that it was not Jeff Austin’s Yonder Mountain String Band performing at the Barrymore Theatre on a snowy Saturday night to close out January.
However, just because Austin was no longer a part of the band did not necessarily take away from what they were trying to do, but it was certainly different.
Since their inception in 1998, the engine that drove this veritable jam band/bluegrass hybrid was their fiery mandolin player who chugged along, playing notes as quickly and as loudly as his instrument could churn them out.
But in April of 2014, Austin departed the band after taking the previous tour off to spend time with his newborn child. In the wake of this, Yonder brought along mandolin player Jacob Jolliff and fiddle player Allie Kral to fill the void left by Austin.
With this new outfit, the dynamic of the band changed. Gone was the immense energy brought along by Austin and in its stead, Jolliff and Kral provided a level of musicianship the band hadn’t really seen out of the mandolin spot.
Kral in particular, known for her work with Cornmeal, another jam band with its roots in bluegrass, plays with restraint never seen out of Austin. Her work on the fiddle adds an extra texture to the band, making them sound more like a bluegrass band than a jam band.
The same could be said about Jolliff, who also shows considerably more restraint in his playing than Austin ever did, but doesn’t have that extra gear of his predecessor wherein musicality is thrown out the window in favor of ripping off a foot-stomping solo, which increases the decibels of the crowd and certainly on the stage.
But before talking about the show itself, one needs to examine the venue. Nestled on Madison’s east side, this 83-year-old venue that holds just under 1,000 people was packed to the gills with energetic fans of the band.
With a small pit, which saw probably twice as many people as it should have, and seats lining the final two-thirds downstairs and a seated balcony, which saw the majority of the seated patrons, there was a palpable energy emanating through the crowd, which the band gave back in spades.
For the opening 45 or so minutes of the first set, the quintet ran through an octet of songs. One word characterized the whole night: heavy. While bluegrass bands are hardly given labels such as “heavy,” Yonder are hardly your grandfather’s bluegrass band.
For the final segment of the set, the band brought out Drew Emmitt, mandolin player for Leftover Salmon, another one of the pioneers of this “jam grass” scene.
Running through a sandwich of “Traffic Jam” into Leftover Salmon’s “Get Me Outta This City” before heading back into “Traffic Jam,” the now sextet more closely resembled Austin’s iteration of Yonder.
Emmitt, a fantastic mandolin player, did what Austin was known for: playing fast and loud. While it’s selling both short to say that they only play fast and loud without regard for notes or music, what Austin brought was energy and Emmitt stepped into that Energizer Bunny role with aplomb.
The second set, which featured Emmitt for the entirety of the set, saw it’s full-time mandolin player take center stage at one point for what surely was the high point of the show.
As an intro to Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Mandolin,” Jolliff had the stage to himself, where he took all the time he needed, building and building on a ferocious solo that paid great attention to each note played, even as they increased in speed and as his left hand flew up and down the fret board.
As the rest of the band launched into “The Father of Bluegrass’” tune, the hard-driving rhythms gave each band member a chance to shine, though no one shone as brightly as Jolliff, whose mid-song solo caused the building to erupt into a frenzy of bluegrass ecstasy.
While the night was filled with a bevy of high points, coming from the three core members as well: Adam Aijala on acoustic guitar, Dave Johnston on banjo and the new “voice of the band,” Ben Kaufmann, who had taken over the talking duties mid-song from Austin, on upright bass, it was the final segment that really showed their strengths.
Opening up the final stretch with “Angel,” a slow burn of a number that coalesces all of the elements that makes Yonder what they are, before seguing into the relatively recently penned “Fingerprint,” which saw Johnston take the lead vocal mic on the heavy tune.
The middle of the sandwich saw “Robots,” a dark tune that saw their acoustic instruments distorted into a polyethnic blend and provided avenues into areas the band nary explores, all while the lights strobed and fluttered behind them.
The set then wrapped up with the completion of “Fingerprint” and then the end of “Angel” before the lengthy encore took shape and the band bid us goodnight. Overall, the addition of Emmitt for the second half of the show helped bring Yonder back to their old sound, though time has shown that Kral and Jolliff have melded into the fold with sangfroid.