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A barn burner Yonder Mountain steals the show

Guess what? Hippies love bluegrass!

This should surprise no one who is at all familiar with the trajectory of the mother of all jam bands, the Grateful Dead, whose members started their musical life as members of a San Francisco jug band specializing in slightly altered takes on traditional bluegrass, folk and country tunes.

Thursday, members of the jam-band nation congregated in Lafayette Square to welcome Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band and the Texas alt-country quartet the Old 97's. Yup, it rained cats and dogs, and yes, there's nothing like seeing bands like this in the accommodating atmosphere of a small club, but Thursday was a night to celebrate and dance, inclement weather be damned.

Recent changes in the configuration of the Thursday at the Square PA system meant excellent sound from wherever one happened to be standing, and a rare co-headliner bill meant that nary a dull moment was in store for the smaller than usual but incredibly enthused crowd.

The Yonder Mountain String Band kicked off the show, and rather handily stole it, which is no slight on the Old 97's -- that band did what it was supposed to do, with vigor. It must be said, however, that the String Band's virtuosic bluegrass was a tough act to follow. This is a band of serious players, all of whom took spotlights in just about every one of the band's barn-burning tunes. Mind you, this quartet rocked the Square without a drummer, which is a tough gig to pull off in front of a drinking crowd. But Jeff Austin (mandolin and vocals), Ben Kaufmann (bass and vocals), Dave Johnston (banjo and vocals) and Adam Aijala (acoustic guitar and vocals) had no problem kicking up a dust storm of animated bluegrass and seasoned country, in the process pleasing what seemed to be a healthy contingent of longtime fans and newcomers alike.

The group settled in quickly, offering a swanky "Not Far Away," a trad-styled bluegrass kicker, and gained the crowd's trust early on with "Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown," which -- like most of the songs the band played during Thursday's set -- featured a round of solos from each member, in what was one of the more outstanding examples of improvisatory interplay the stage at the Square has ever seen.

"Sometimes I've Lost" was given voice by bassist Kaufmann, who gave a shout-out to Millard Fillmore Hospital for treating him following a diving accident earlier on Thursday. (Huh? Not quite clear on that one, but the bassist seemed to be in fine, if physically subdued, form.)

It started pouring in a biblical sense halfway through the String Band's set, but the crowd welcomed the rain and the band grooved on the Bacchuslike vibe.

A set like the String Band's is hard to follow, but Rhett Miller and Co. were up to the challenge. The group -- one of the last country-based outfits to be signed prior to the collapse of the music industry, and thus, based on its smart blend of pop smarts and alt-country presentation, an anomaly on the modern landscape -- offered a butt-kicking set of twin Telecaster-fueled rock-tinged country.

Miller's voice and rock star good looks were in fine shape, and the band appeared hungry, aggressive, eager to ram the likes of "Designs on You" and "West Texas Teardrops" down the crowd's throat.



WHO: Old 97' s with Yonder Mountain String Band

WHEN: Thursday night

WHERE: Lafayette Square

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