Yonder Mountain String Band

Yonder Mountain String Band at Tarrytown Music Hall

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We live near Tarrytown Music Hall and we’ve been to six shows there since we discovered it (we were very late to the party). We are on the mailing list, so we get notifications of upcoming shows. A couple of months ago I noticed that Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB) would be playing there (last night). The name evoked Bluegrass, which we love, and listening to their music (available right on their website) convinced me that we would like them a lot.

This won’t be a typical post for me following a concert. So, I need to get the good out first, before I start my rant.

All four members of YMSB are talented. All are professional musicians and they sing reasonably well (nothing special). The guitarist, Adam Aijala, is the one standout musician (excellent flat-picker, though not in the league of some others that I have covered here). I know that fans of YMSB will argue that Jeff Austin is great on the mandolin. He’s good, perhaps very good at times, but he’s actually not even close to special compared to quite a number of current mandolin stars.

Their music is very good, all around, and I’m sure that owning their CDs would be enjoyable from the first listen, and consistently so thereafter.

OK, time for their fans (very rabid ones indeed) to turn away. The rest of this post will be a train wreck from their perspective (understandably), and they should look away.

Here’s the nicest thing I can say about the show last night:

Live, YMSB is a Bluegrass version of a Grateful Dead Jam Band wannabe.

That’s not meant as an insult to the Grateful Dead (who’ve been near the top of my favorites list for 40 years!), nor of the Jam Band experience. Even the wannabe tag isn’t meant to be an insult (OK, it was definitely a shot), because they’re very good, and their fans adore them (in fact, exactly like many Dead Heads love the Dead!).

But, context matters (at least to me), and Tarrytown Music Hall isn’t exactly known for being an indoors Woodstock. You wouldn’t have known that last night.

The one thing that is all too typical of Tarrytown Music Hall (TTM) events (and I’ve made this complaint a number of times) is that they never start on time. The show was called for 8pm. I had no doubt it would not start then. At 7:50, there were perhaps 50 people in the hall (it can seat 840!). At 8:05 there were about 150 people there. At 8:18, when the band wandered on the stage, there were probably 400+, and shortly thereafter, there were over 600, I’m reasonably sure.

The point is that TTM couldn’t start the shows on time if they wanted to, because the majority of the regulars know that it’s stupid to show up on time, since the seats are assigned (no advantage to being early), and you’ll just end up sitting and waiting… It’s really rude to people who might have plans later on, or long drives home, etc. TTM needs to figure out a way to spread the word that shows will start on time, even if the audience is empty!

The vast majority of the audience last night were giant fans of YMSB and knew exactly what to expect. The couple in the row in front of us (to our left) were about to see them for the 18th time!

So, what did they know that we didn’t? First, that 90% of the audience would stand for the entire concert, and sway (not really dance), like people do at Grateful Dead concerts. This wasn’t an outdoor festival. Not only are specific seats assigned, the ones that are closer to the stage cost more. We paid for fifth row dead-center seats, but we might as well have paid for last row balcony seats.

Immediately in front of us were two couples that were in their 70’s or 80’s, and had no idea what they were in for either. They stood for roughly 1/2 of the show (at least the part we stayed for), and were clearly extremely uncomfortable for having to do so, just to get a glimpse of the action on stage.

All of that would be somewhat acceptable, if this was an adoring crowd who was mesmerized by the music. Nope, this was a party (and not the kind I’ve covered for a Kenny Chesney or Keith Urban concert). This was a literal party. In fact, here’s a direct quote from the YMSB website (that I wish I had read more carefully before buying the tickets):

“We love that people come to see us,” Johnston points out. “Everyone appreciates good music. Some people want to go to a recital and some people want to party.”

Too bad if you are in the want to go to a recital category. There’s no way that this could ever be the case for a YMSB concert, so the above quote should have been slightly different.

Still, I said above it would be OK if the crowd were adoring. Instead, the four people immediately behind us talked at the top of their lungs, all night long, about their friends who were dating each other, not about the band. And yet, the men (we think not their dates) were fans, as on occasion, they sang along, so they clearly knew the words to some of the songs. The girls’ voices were grating, and made it very hard to hear the words to many of the songs.

Next, the two leaders of the band, Jeff Austin (on mandolin) and Ben Kaufmann (on bass) have a great rapport with the crowd, and are very comfortable bantering and telling stories. Are any of them good? Who knows.

The second either of them opens their mouth, a few dozen morons start shouting, whistling, and generally whooping it up (in an apparent drunk/drugged stupor), and the voices on stage are instantly drowned out. That’s a shame, as I like banter and connecting with the performers in addition to just enjoying the music.

Even if that didn’t happen, there was another problem preventing the clear understanding of the voices on stage last night. Typically, the sound system and acoustics at TTM are top notch. Last night was beyond awful. I’m not even sure that the band was using the TTM speakers, possibly only using their own amps (even for the voices) on stage.

The biggest problem (by far) was the volume on all of the microphones. The vocals were at 50-66% the volume of the instruments. When they sang, making out the words was difficult, and harmonies might have been there, but you would never know that.

The banjo, guitar and mandolin were clear and at good volume levels. The bass was disgustingly loud (and regular readers here know that I love a good bass, so it’s not that I don’t appreciate the instrument). Aside from shaking the floor on every strum of the bass, it was so loud that it hummed (as in feedback) and overwhelmed the voices and other instruments all too often.

I have no idea whether this was because YMSB’s own sound person was just one of the worst (we’ve experienced a few bad sound engineers) or whether this was the fault of TTM (which normally nails sound!).

The audience didn’t seem to notice, let alone care. Like I noted above, they were there for a party. I was thinking to myself that if the band slipped off the stage, and put on a live CD in the background, few would have noticed.

Could there be an explanation? Perhaps. One of their songs is about smoking marijuana, and while they sang it, a bunch of people near the stage were clearly smoking it. That’s not so unexpected outdoors, or when seeing an Allman Brothers concert at the Beacon Theater, but at TTM, for a somewhat Bluegrass type show? Totally unexpected. No, I’m not a prude when it comes to this kind of stuff, just surprised at the context.

I must be running out of complaints, no? No. I’ll probably lose interest in typing before I’m actually done complaining. 😉

Next up, for the first time (reminder: this was our seventh show at TTM), no one came out to introduce the band. They just wandered on stage, and after talking for three minutes, started playing. No problem, but after the fact, it made us think that TTM wanted to distance themselves from the band. But, if that’s true, why invite them to begin with?

You might think I’m joking about TTM wanting to distance themselves, but I’m not. Ben Kaufmann made a big deal about that very fact. He told a story (that I strained to hear) that they played a theater the night before and would likely not be invited back, and he predicted the same would be true for TTM. I hope he’s right. Actually, I don’t care, as I know better than to go again…

Why did he think they wouldn’t be invited back? First, he said “They had no idea what they were getting themselves into!”. Ha ha, that’s a good one on them (the theater owners/bookers)! But, he was more specific. He said that at the theater, there was a special section called Gold Circle Seating, where he believed rich people with season’s tickets sat (the implication, never said, is that these idiots came because they owned the seats, not because they had any interest in the show).

He made fun of a gentleman who was wearing an ascot, and who left the show in disgust, complaining to management that he had no view from his special seat. Ben thought it was hysterical that he expected a normal show from YMSB. Lest you think I don’t have a sense of humor, or that I actually believe that there was a person wearing an ascot, you should know that I took the story figuratively.

I think it’s wonderful that they are successful, and have such a huge and loyal fan base. What I don’t understand is the joy Ben takes in alienating potential fans. People who buy season’s tickets (or people like us, who specifically bought tickets for this show!), need to be included, drawn in, not made fun of. I’m gonna guess that the rich guy is less likely to download an illegal copy of their music (should he become a fan), but perhaps YMSB eschews money as well.

I’m running out of steam, so I’ll just add one additional rant, aimed both at YMSB and TTM, equally.

Tickets at TTM are expensive in general. The same exact group costs dramatically more at TTM than they do just 30 miles south when they play in NYC. One example: we’re seeing Dave Mason at TTM tonight. We paid $126 for two tickets (including fees). When we saw him at BB King in NYC last year, it cost us $80, and a few months earlier, in NJ, cost us $60 to see Dave.

Well, TTM is a non-profit, and doesn’t have a show every night, so I guess that they charge a premium to keep up this beautiful and historic theater. We aren’t too annoyed to support that. Especially, if it means a bigger cut for the performers. Of course, at 840 seats, it also has a significantly larger capacity than many of the clubs we frequent in NYC, so there’s a double effect of potentially putting a lot more money in the artist’s hands. Good.

Except when the artist shoves it in the face of the patrons, making fun of people who can actually afford to pay for a ticket, and have some expectation of what it means to have a certain seat reserved for them.

Last night, we paid $86 for two tickets. I’ll bet that there are few shows a year where YMSB commands this high a ticket price, especially in a venue this large.

When intermission came (75 minutes into the show), we were thrilled to have the ability (and the excuse) to get up, without having to push and shove through the crowd, and we happily went home. I applaud YMSB for putting on a very long show (many shows are only 75 minutes in total), and clearly, they were going to give at least another hour, but we’d had enough.

Summary: they have talent, and the music is good. The sound was beyond awful, they were smug and obnoxious and the crowd was mostly there to feel good about themselves, rather than enjoy the actual performance.