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Out of thin air: Yonder Mountain String Band.

Photo: Julia Zave

The Mile-High Club

By Josh Potter

Yonder Mountain String Band

Revolution Hall, June 28

When, 11 years ago, Ben Kaufmann told his mother he was dropping out of college to go on tour with a bluegrass band, her incredulity probably was warranted. “Bluegrass bassist” just doesn’t wield the same promise as “doctor,” “lawyer,” or “high-powered exec.” Nowadays, it’s no big thing when Boulder, Colo.’s, Yonder Mountain String Band sell out a rock club, but, given Kaufmann’s insistence on telling the tale near the end of the band’s long second set, the whole prospect must still seem pretty novel. With a massive light rig, a catalog of oddball cover songs, and a cadre of devoted tour rats, novelty for YMSB is only the beginning.

Sunday night’s show will be one to recall six months from now when collective body heat will seem preferable to wool hats and parkas. The room was downright sticky. Onstage, however, the band did their darnedest with fans, backlights, and a “hazer” to create the high-altitude ambiance befitting their subject matter. An early “40 Miles From Denver” set the tone. Sepia-toned Americana, replete with miners, outlaws and drifters, is a genre that many acts have reinhabited in recent years, but YMSB use the genre as a springboard for their clean harmonies and breathtaking fretwork. It’s literally (and figuratively) from a higher vantage that the band approach their material (as evidenced by the second-set “Traffic Jam,” in which a character views the humorous tumult from a lofty perch).

Maybe it’s the thin air, but at this altitude, Ozzy makes perfect sense on the mandolin. One of the band’s great strengths is their interpretation of pop tunes, and this show had no shortage. “Crazy Train” closed a first set that also featured the Beatles’ “Come Together” and an absolutely ecclesiastical version of the gospel standard “Jesus on the Mainline.” Glib like a contradance caller, mandolinist Jeff Austin came alive on this one and only grew more animated as the night went on.

After a tidy first set, the band wasted little time in the second proving why their unlikely formula works. Above all, they are chops players, and a dark interpretation of Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” yielded some of the best picking of the night. Banjoist Dave Johnston cast a quizzical sort of raga over the changes, while flat-picking guitarist Adam Aijala took the piece in a Saharan direction, and Austin conjured all of David Byrne’s angularity on his tiny instrument before bringing the piece back home.

Consummate showmen, the band stitched the night together with witty banter, so a plug for their forthcoming album could have sounded cursory had it not come with this unlikely invitation: “Pick it up or copy it from a friend, but if you copy it, come to, like, 10 shows to make up for it.” As a band who are most at home on stage, this is far from an unreasonable request. In fact, it’s because of this commitment to playing live that “bluegrass band” has, for them, been a viable career option. Besides, when you blindside your audience with a cover of the Misfits’ “20 Eyes,” as they did for their encore, people tend to come back for more.

Rain of Sound

Blonde Redhead

MASS MoCA, Hune 27

Given the meteorology this June, no outdoor show was safe, and the threat from yet another thundershower drove Saturday’s Blonde Redhead show at MASS MoCA from its scheduled spot in an outdoor courtyard to a backup location inside the art museum’s Hunter Center. But for once the rain may have done us a favor: Blonde Redhead have a mysterious quality better suited to the confines of the dark theater, where the band’s atmospheric layers of sound can build without losing potency in the open air.

The crowd sat quietly—almost too quietly, as if in a movie theater—as Blonde Redhead began their set in front of a backdrop washed in red light. “I have this impression you can’t hear us,” singer Kazu Makino said, quizzically looking out into the silent audience. Fortunately, as the show progressed, a standing-room-only area to the side of the stage filled with a boisterous group of fans, who added a more upbeat energy to the room as they danced to the band’s jerkier art-rock beats.

A long-heralded indie band, Blonde Redhead formed in the early ’90s in New York City, gaining prominence when Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley produced the band’s debut self-titled album for his Smells Like Records label. At the time, Blonde Redhead were a four-piece, but after shedding a few bassists, settled on their current lineup featuring Makino and twin brothers Simone Pace (drums) and Amedeo Pace (vocals and guitar). A decade and a half later, the band are still going strong—with an acclaimed album, 23, from 2007, and a new album in the works—despite never achieving quite the name recognition of some of their ’90s indie-rock peers.

Their 15 years of playing together was readily apparent onstage, with the band working together in tight, economical and always purposeful ways. Makino—who alternated between bass or keyboard for most tracks—added a childish-sounding melody to “Messenger,” from 2004’s Misery Is a Butterfly, underlain by Amedeo Pace’s droning guitar. The band picked up a groove on “In Particular,” from Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, with Simone Pace—dressed in a white sailor suit—drumming like a machine. Makino shed her keyboard midway through “The Dress” to act out her high, distinctive vocals (and inscrutable lyrics) with twitchy, uninhibited dance moves. “Marry me! It’s legal here,” yelled out a woman in the crowd.

—Kirsten Ferguson

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