Monday, February 3, 2003

This band gets high on bluegrass

Concert review

By Chris Varias
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Grateful Dead might be remembered for trippy electric live shows, but Deadheads are just as fond of the band's quieter stuff, like the 1970 Americana masterpiece Workingman's Dead. So it makes sense Deadheads would find reason to dance to what amounts to a two-and-a-half-hour extension of the Dead's "Cumberland Blues."

That was the sound Saturday night-no electric guitars, no drums, just "jamgrass," as it's called.

The jam scene encompasses any number of musical styles, but none appear to be any hotter than freewheeling neo-traditional bluegrass, or jamgrass, the idiom favored by Yonder Mountain String Band.

A sold-out crowd of 1,200, made up mostly of young-hippie types, filled Covington's Madison Theater to dance the night away to the sounds of the Colorado group. And most attendants managed to find enough real estate on the packed club floor to execute that Dead-style, drugged-out do-si-do.

Yonder Mountain gave them reason to dance. The band is in no way a bluegrass purist act. Some of their tunes lasted 20 minutes. Each guy sings in his own microphone. And there are only four of them - no fiddle, a traditional bluegrass instrument.

But acoustic guitarist Adam Aijala, mandolin player Jeff Austin, banjo player Dave Johnson and upright bassist Ben Kaufmann are about as close to pure bluegrass as jam nation gets. And their simple two-minute tunes moved the crowd as effectively as the never-ending ones packed with jam staples like solos and quiet-to-loud dynamics.

The group did two sets. The second one seemed to provoke more dancing, probably because the first included a mini-set in the middle featuring Aijala and opening act Larry Keel. With the other band members off stage, the two flat-pickers played duets on some pretty instrumental melodies before the gravel-voiced Keel sang lead on the Yonder Mountain staple "Whiskey Before Breakfast."

The second set didn't let up, with Austin, an Illinois native who graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, handling most of the lead vocals.

The crowd was at its most frenzied in set two during a version of Ralph Stanley's "Sharecropper's Son." Maybe purist bluegrass is the next step in the post-Dead Deadhead trip.


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