By: Anna Roth
I heard feet stomping and banjo strings twanging as I walked towards the Neptune on Thursday night.
Upon entering, I joined a large crowd near the bar watching a dance floor already at least half-full of
enthusiastic dancers. In fact, the crowd in the theatre was so large that I had to double-check that the
band onstage providing the foot-stomping, knee-slapping music wasn’t the headliner, Yonder Mountain
String Band. They weren’t. Head for the Hills, a talented, energetic group from Fort Collins, played what
has been described as “modern acoustic music” for a set of 6 great songs, commanding attention and
energy from the audience – not always an easy feat for an opening act. Finishing up with a rendition of
Unchain My Heart accompanied by members of the audience singing along, Head for the Hills left the
stage to raucous applause.
The opening band had done their job well – the excitement and energy they created during the opening
set were expressed in whoops and hollers as the headliner, Yonder Mountain String Band took the
stage. Yonder started off with a fast number, making the crowd jump right into the energetic dancing
that would dominate the rest of the show.
After two songs to warm up the already happy crowd, Yonder’s Jeff Austin invited renowned banjoist
and special guest Danny Barnes onstage. If we’d been jamming before, it was nothing compared to how
we felt once Barnes joined the show. Yonder and Danny Barnes allowed the crowd only one respite,
playing just one somewhat slow song in a set that was otherwise high-energy with driving melodies. The
highlight by far was a dueling banjos-esque faceoff between Barnes and Yonder Mountain String Band’s
banjoist Dave Johnston. Several audience members even stopped dancing during this song to admire the
intricate fingerwork of the two musicians as they played off each other.
Yonder and Barnes took a break after their blistering first set and the thirsty crowd mobbed the bar or
went outside to recuperate with cigarettes and fresh air. When the band stepped back onstage, many
audience members had joined the dance floor; it was absolutely packed for the second set. This set
included just seven songs, but was even longer and arguably more energetic than the opening set, since
Yonder can jam together unlike any band I’ve ever seen live.
Having never seen Yonder perform live before this show, their synchronicity was an unexpected
surprise. Their albums are excellent, but they give no indication of the true musicianship of this band.
Towards the end of Down the Bolton Stretch, the band teased the crowd, building up to crescendos
that seemed to hint at the finale, only to start on a new riff and begin building up again. After several
repetitions of this I got comfortable with this motif and figured it would continue indefinitely, or maybe
blend into their next soon. But almost as soon as I thought this, the crisp ending of the song came
without warning. Three notes, hit in perfect unison by the band with no discernible signal from any of
the players ended the song where I had been expecting yet another crescendo. The song was over so
fast that it took me some time to absorb and appreciate how expertly they’d pulled it off. Of course,
seasoned Yonder fans all around me cheered appreciatively; their band hadn’t let them down.
Before finishing the second set with a superhuman 30-minute jam, Yonder played a shorter song
called Pockets, sung by Dave Johnston, who possesses a pleasant, resonant voice. This song is made
particularly notable by its unexpected style. Pockets was typical for the performance that night, being
much more lyrics based, with a repetitive melody supporting the story that is told, as opposed to the
songs that dominated the evening, which featured meandering melodies that surprise listeners with
something new every few bars.
But Yonder finished with their notable style – a fun, frantically paced number that had the whole venue
pulsing and dancing, whooping and hollering. As the song went on and the minutes ticked by, the
whoops took on a note of incredulity – how long had they been playing this one song? I can’t believe
they aren’t tired! Finally the band hit one chord all together, and Ben Kauffman stepped back from his
bass, indicating the end of the song, and of the night, and the band exited the stage.
But the crowd was having none of that – hollers and whistles of appreciation became more and more
insistent until the band returned to the stage and took up their instruments for an encore. Jeff Austin
plucked the opening notes of yet another song, and we were off for one more frantic dance to finish the