Just outside downtown Pittsburgh sits a renovated church turned concert venue, Mr. Smalls Theatre. It plays host to one of the most unique concert venues in Western PA and probably the tri-state region. It’s the perfect setting for a quaint gathering among friends, old and new, and a chance to see some excellent musicians put their craft on display. This past Sunday, November 8th, Yonder Mountain String Band and the Henhouse Prowlers set up shop at Mr. Smalls and preached the good word of Bluegrass to the eager Sunday evening congregation.
The evening got off to a hot start with Chicago-based bluegrass five-piece, the Henhouse Prowlers, warming up the stage in support of Yonder Mountain on this evening as well as a handful of others shows during this stretch of their Fall tour. Made up of Ben Wright (banjo), Aaron Dorfman (guitar), Jon Goldfine (bass) Dan Andree (fiddle) and Todd Livingston (dobro), it was clear right away just how much respect these guys have for the music they’re playing. From the use of a traditional one-mic stand, to the song selection (“Tres Piños Sky,” “Interstate,” Shenandoah Breakdown,” “Southbound,” “New Camptown” > “Lonesome Road”) and even their dress spoke to the Prowlers’ authenticity and true passion for bluegrass.
When Yonder Mountain hit the stage, bassist Ben Kaufman, who just so happens to have been born in the Steel City, prefaced the set by a mention of the Steelers’ star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his unfortunate injury earlier in the day, explaining that instead of getting upset over what the outcome of the injury might be, to instead, indulge in a night of fine string music with him and his kinfolk. And just like that, the band plunged into an appropriately rousing “Hello City Limits,” which left standout guitar player Adam Aijala sarcastically asking mandolinist Jacob Jolliff at the end of the tune if his supercharged pace was fast enough him. The banter on stage all night made for some great comedic relief, a terrific hallmark of Yonder Mountain that one comes to appreciate over the years.
Banjo player Dave Johnston got to show off his chops during “Landfall,” then taking chief vocal duties during “Son Of A Gun.” It’s always a pleasure to see Johnston star during shows. He’s such an interesting character and such a talented musician and songwriter.
With the opening notes of “Casualty” being played next, the intensity of the picking started to ramp up, with a segue into The Minutemen’s “Jesus & Tequlia” that found Kaufman grooving on electric bass before returning to his upright bass when “Casualty” was refrained, an awesome jam sandwhich that gave way to fiddle player Allie Kral’s first, but not last shining moment of the night. After a stunning, spacey intro spearheaded by the whirlwinds of Kral’s bow, she brilliantly guided the band through Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Her piercing vocals and range couldn’t help but draw a loud ovation from the Sunday night crowd.
After a classic take on The Stanley Brothers’ “Sharecropper’s Son,” one that’s been in the band’s arsenal for more than 15 years now, Yonder invited out Ben Wright (banjo) and Todd Livingston (dobro) from the Henhouse Prowlers to sit-in on “Years With Rose” and “Winds Of Wyoming” to close the set. Both Wright’s and Livingston’s contributions to the songs were outstanding. There was an excellent give and take on stage all night, which was exemplified on “Years With Rose” with the two newcomers in Yonder Mountain, Kral and Jolliff meeting at center stage and proceeding to duel it out lick for lick. It was an extra-added bonus for those that came out on a Sunday night. Well deserved.
After a brief intermission break, Yonder returned to the stage with the title track to their 2015 album, “Black Sheep.” It was after that and during a cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland 1945,” which the band debuted at their Halloween gig in Columbus as Yonder Mountain PUNK Band, that it was abundantly clear that Jacob Jolliff must be some kind of robot or have been concieved in a petri dish. He’s so technically sound and casually impressive that it makes you wonder how someone so young could be so gifted. He was an absolute treat to watch all night long. If there’s such a thing as “shredding” on a mandolin, he does it with regularity and complete ease.
Like in the first set, members of the Prowlers were brought out to jam during the second set, and jam they did. This time on “Kentucky Mandolin” and “On The Run.” This combo got fast and furious and in a relatively small amount of time. Prowlers’ fiddle player Dan Andree might as well have been shot out of cannon because he was soaring sky high with the ferocious runs of melodies he was laying down. One could see Kral in the corner shaking her head in approval. The Prowlers’ Aaron Dorfman also got in on the act, showcasing some serious flatpicking skills on guitar during “On The Run” that also got a nod of confidence from his Yonder Mountain counterpart Adam Aijala who was pickin up what Dorfman was putting down just a few steps away.
Amidst all this jamming, Prowlers bassist Jon Goldfine emerged to the stage to take part in the fun with Yonder Mountain bassist Ben Kaufman in one of the most entertaining sections of a show you’ll ever see. The two traded bass duties for several minutes, running in circles practically in keeping the bass stationary while trading positions at it’s side. It looked as if they were playing a game of tag or “ring around a rosie.” As a fan of live improvisational music, this is as good as it gets.
After the Prowlers left the stage, Kaufman stepped up to sing fan favorite “40 Miles From Denver,” a tune that Aijala characterized at Red Rocks Amphitheatre earlier this summer as, “If there was a Ben Kaufman classic, this would be that song.” From there, Yonder Mountain’s Sunday service at Mr. Smalls would begin to wind down but not before Allie Kral got to sing again. Her sterling vocals on a song like Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” have added such a wonderful dynamic to the band that’s difficult to quantify. The tune would transition into a wonderfully giddy version of Bob Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident” lead by Aijala before sliding into a spacey “Pockets,” Jolliff putting out notes that sounded so jazz like it was astounding to hear that quality of tone created in a string band.
For an encore, the band paid respects to the Polish influence in the Pittsburgh region with a rendition of “Polka On The Banjo” before closing with “If Loving You Is Killing Me,” dedicated to Michael Walker of Woodstock, GA who was in attendance seeing his 250th show.
It was a captivating night of music to say the least, as Yonder Mountain String Band is firing on a whole new brand of cylinders these days. It’s a fun and exciting time to see this lineup grow and mesh together. If you get the chance, don’t pass it up!
Setlist: Yonder Mountain String Band at Mr. Smalls Theatre, Millvale, PA – 11/8/15
Set I: Hello City Limits, Landfall, Son Of A Gun, Casualty > Jesus & Tequlia > Casualty, Jolene, Sharecropper’s Son, Years With Rose* > Winds Of Wyoming*
Set II: Black Sheep, Holland 1945, Kentucky Mandolin# > On The Run#%, 40 Miles From Denver, Sister Golden Hair, Son of a Preacher Man > Spanish Harlem Incident > Pockets > Spanish Harlem Incident
Encore: Polka On The Banjo, If Loving You Is Killng Me
* with Todd Livingston & Ben Wright of the Henhouse Prowlers
# with Dan Andree & Aaron Dorfman of the Henhouse Prowlers
% with dual-bass jam with Jon Goldfine of Henhouse Prowlers
[Setlist via Yonder Kinfolk Facebook Page/All photos by David Heath of Lofty Views]