The deft and nimble pickers of Yonder Mountain String Band rolled into Carrboro's Cat's Cradle to warm up a cold winter evening with their good buddies The Travelin' McCourys in tow. The second of eight nights together was full of unexpected covers and fiery originals from both bands. There's something primal about huddling together in the winter to stay warm, and the communal heat of a barn burner of a show is the best case scenario.
First convened as bluegrass legend Del McCoury's backing band, The Travelin' McCourys forged their own progressive path and have toured since 2009 alongside their Del duties, winning countless awards along the way. Del's sons Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo have played with pop since the '80s, and Jason Carter joined on fiddle in 1992. Bassist Alan Bartram and guitarist Cody Kilby round out the remarkable quintet.
The train burst out of the station with the title track to Waylon Jennings' 1973 album "Lonseome, On'ry & Mean" followed by a firebolt rendition of The Grateful Dead's "Cumberland Blues" culminating in breakneck mandolin and guitar solos. The setlist was peppered with powerful originals by Bertram such as "The Shaker" and "The Hardest Heart," but the majority was devoted to rowdy displays of rustic virtuosity on songs from across the musical landscape. Reimaginings included a heated take on Bruce Hornsby's "White Wheeled Limousine," a fleet-footed version of Herb Pedersen's plaintive classic "Old Train," and a run through Paul Craft's "Midnight Flyer" which The Eagles made famous.
Ronnie's sublime solo mandolin introduced an exquisite adaptation of Passenger's "Let Her Go," which opened their 2018 Grammy-winning album. Heavenly harmonies blended together to twist this modern classic into a delicious musical morsel of bluegrass beauty. High speed bursts of lightning from each player lit up a blazing race across The Osborne Brothers' "I'll be Alright Tomorrow" followed by the timeless elegance of the Grateful Dead's "Bird Song." Ronnie's mandolin paid perfect homage to Jerry Garcia, both in its quintessential tone and through heartfelt blasts of experimental psychedelic runs under a kaleidoscopic light show. In an apt resolution for North Carolina, they wrapped with "Southbound" by the Tar Heel State's own Doc and Merle Watson. "I'm going back to spend some time / Where I can have fun if I ain't got a dime / I'm southbound."
Lots of bluegrass bands tell you where they're from, like the Foggy Mountain Boys or the Nashville Bluegrass Band. But Yonder Mountain... just the name conjures images of an undefined "elsewhere", a faraway land where genres and imagination merge to create mysterious new forms. That faraway place - is it their foundation or destination? That faraway sound - is it in duration or an aspiration? Their story is still being written as they enter their 22nd year. Three of the four original members - guitarist Adam Aijala, banjoist Dave Johnston and bassist Ben Kaufmann - are still on board. Beloved founding mandolinist Jeff Austin left in 2014 and passed away in 2019. It took two people to fill the gap that was left in his wake. Astounding fiddler Allie Kral was added in 2015 and brand new multi-instrumentalist Nick Piccininni just joined the jam in 2020.
They opened with Flatt & Scruggs' ageless "Polka on a Banjo" and their melodic original "River," suitably singing "I came here looking to find a place to forget about my troubles for a while." A mellow "Take a Chance on Me" led to a wild 10-minute romp through "All the Time" that scaled multiple peaks of intense fiddling and screaming crowds. "Chasing My Tail" was followed by two covers perhaps unexpected at a bluegrass show, yet each perfect in their placement and purpose. Billy Joel's "Travelin' Prayer" jumped in hot with Kral's incomparable vocals and led to an impeccably charming yachtgrass translation of King Harvest's groovy 1972 earworm "Dancing in the Moonlight." They rolled on with luscious banjo and fiddle excursions in "Jail Song" and the bouncy "Black Sheep," which ended in an epic explosion of sonic fury.
"Insult and an Elbow" featured ferocious fiddling before expanding into a vast mandolin expedition. An animated reading of John Hartford's "Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown" built up to a boil with a colossal fiddle and mandolin duel. They closed the set with a tip of the hat to Del, carving out a deep and dynamic 17-minute version of McCoury's "All Aboard," with the light show leaving nothing on the table. This is new acoustic music as profound psychedelia, taking listeners on a voyage through a bottomless cavern of musical explorations.
The Travelin' McCourys returned to the stage to join Yonder for a passionate 10-person encore celebration, tearing into Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" and John Hartford's "Vamp in the Middle." They capped things off with a massive 17-minute trailblaze through "Angel," which escalated to a ravenous jam with monumental solos from Kilby and Ronnie. Piccininni even leaned over at one point to play the left hand part on Ronnie's mandolin mid-solo, fusing their brains together to huge cheers from the crowd. As the lights came up and the sound faded away, what remained was the warm glow of camaraderie and community, the lingering shimmer of music as medicine. If you get the chance, visit the yonder. Objects may be closer than they appear.
- Paul Kerr
- Photos by Jerry Friend