The Scene: I’ve been to Planet Bluegrass countless times, but I have only camped at a festival there one time, and that was on-site way back in 2002 for the first Yonder Mountain String Band Kinfolk Celebration. Fast forward ten years, and I didn’t camp on-site, but rather in the beautiful Meadow Park just a five or so minute walk from the festival site. After getting our camp set up around noon, we were treated to an exceptional lunch of grilled Cuban Sandwiches and we settled in with a few beers to enjoy the afternoon. We chatted, laughed, and even headed down to a swimming hole about 20 yards from camp to cool off in the river. It was an idylic afternoon and as the campground began to slowly fill up with Kinfolk from all over, we started to think about when to head over to the Festival.
When we walked onto the grounds of The Ranch, I was struck by how empty it looked compared to just a week before when Folks Fest had filled the vending alley with many more merchants and food vendors, but it was nice, it was even more mellow than I’m used to it being at Planet Bluegrass, and the strangeness quickly vanished as I grew to love the new set-up.
Larry Keel & Natural Bridge: As we spread out our tarp, Larry Keel and Natural Bridge were just finishing up their set for a few hundred fans who lounged around the grounds, danced in the big open space by the stage, and generally enjoyed the afternoon. While I was able to dash up front and snap a few photos, I didn’t really get to hear much of their set. So, I was glad when Keel emerged later in the night to sit-in with YMSB for a few tunes and I got to see him really rip on the guitar and demonstrate why he is known as one of the best Flatpicking guitarists playing today.
Split Lip Rayfield: Split Lip Rayfield was up next and they threw down an hour long set of their trademark high-energy Punk influenced Bluegrass. The centerpiece of the band is bassist Jeff Eaton’s gas tank bass that holds down the low end with only one string and I was stunned by the tones he was able to get out of that thing. Though I’m not sure I knew the name of a single song they played, their set was over much to fast and almost as soon as the dust settled Todd Snider took the stage.
Todd Snider: Snider has been a long time friend of YMSB and the boys even play a few of his songs every now and then. He stood up there on that beautiful stage with his guitar and a harmonica and serenaded us with his “stoner folk” as the crowd continued to grow. He opened up with “Can’t Complain,” wound his way to “Happy New Year” and by the time he got into “Statistician Blues,” I was hooked. Having never seen Snider before, I wasn’t sure what to expect but was thrilled with his performance. He dropped the crowd pleasing “Conservative Christian…” midway through his set and I found countless people around the grounds laughing and nodding their heads in agreement as he sang lines like “gay bashin’, black fearin’, poor fightin’, tree killin’, regional leaders of sales.” Just days before the Republican National Convention was set to start this song was oh-so appropriate and the cheer as he wrapped it up was one of the biggest of the day.
Snider invited Jeff and Ben of Yonder to the stage a few minutes later and the trio rounded out the set together as they ran through “Ballad of The Devil’s Backbone Tavern,” “Easy Money,” and a staple of the Yonder rotation “Sideshow Blues.” The old friends looked to be having a blast up there on stage and it goes without saying that the crowd loved seeing the Yonder boys hit the stage a little early.
Yonder Mountain String Band: As Yonder’s advertised start time of 7:30 approached, darkness began to creep over the grounds and my excitement grew as I got curious about how the band was going to weave the beautiful natural surroundings into their light show. They came out of the gates firing on all cylinders as they ripped into a tasty Bluegrass sandwich of “Shady Grove” and “Wheel Hoss” before letting Ben Kaufmann’s smooth vocals lead the way on the “Sometimes I’ve Won.” As we danced and sang along, the band settled into a groove that climaxed for me with “Out Of The Blue” from the band’s most recent studio effort The Show. I love the melody, I love the guitar riff, I love the lyrics, I just love this song, and judging by the crowd around me, I’m not the only one.
It was around now that The Ranch was turning into a giant canvas for Yonder’s Lighting Director as he played his lights over the trees behind the stage, the trees that dot the ranch itself, and majestic Red Rock cliffs that loom high above. It was truly beautiful and I got lost in the lights for a bit as the band played on in the background. I was gently pulled back into the fold when I heard the unmistakable first notes of The Grateful Dead classic “Shakedown Street” ring out and I nearly lost it. Weeks ago, I had submitted this song as my request on Yonder’s Facebook page as they were asking for suggestions to build and “very special all request Kinfolk set.” While they didn’t play it as part of the all request set that took place on Saturday, they did play it and I loved it! By the time I got through jumping around and letting everyone know the band was playing my request, I settled in for a nearly 10 minute version of the song. The crowd really got into the “whoo” moments and everyone was loving every minute of it. They kept the energy high and wrapped up the set with a fitting “What The Night Brings” and left us to our own devices for about 30 minutes.
This gave us the opportunity to explore The Ranch at night. We wandered back to the bar and then down to the river, meeting strangers and friends along the way as the shadows played in the trees and on the water lending to the magic of the evening. It wasn’t long before the music began to slowly increase in volume and beckon us back toward the stage. As we made our way into the crowd my two friends and I looked at each other, nodded, and went way up front to be in the thick of it when the second set started. This turned out to be a great idea as one of the best musical passages of the weekend kicked off the second set. The band emerged and Dave Johnston’s Banjo ushered us into a raging “New Horizons” that slowly morphed into the next big surprise of the night, The Beatles “Dear Prudence.” As Austin sang lead, things got a little crazy as everyone around me reveled in this transcendent musical moment. The group wound their way back into “New Horizons” and the whole 20 minute excursion made me feel like my decision to hit up this Kinfolk Fest was the right one, without a doubt. As if that wasn’t enough, just a few songs later Kauffmann broke into one of the songs that got me hooked on this band thirteen years ago, “On the Run.” The Sheriff Saga is one of the best things about these guys in my opinion, and I know I’m not alone on that, and to hear this song was yet another highlight of the night for me.
As the guys segued into “Pretty Daughter” we left the fray up front and headed to the back to grab a beer and then cool off in the river again. I can’t tell you how nice it is to be able to stand, calf deep in moving water, and be able to see and hear the stage pretty much perfectly. It made a great night even better but midway through “My Gal” we decided we would work our back into the crowd and boy were we glad we did as the transition from “My Gal” into “Snow on The Pines” made me an even happier man. Again, this is one of the songs that I heard early on in my YMSB experience, and it still holds onto a piece of my heart. Nearly 25 minutes later, after a great version of “Raleigh & Spencer” the band left the stage and we made our way back to the tarp that we had laid out all those hours before. As we packed up the band gave us the old-timey “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” in a foreshadowing of late night campsite activities, and then dropped “Going Where They Do Not Know My Name” to wrap up one of my favorite Yonder shows in a long time.
Stage Presence: A-
Set/Light Show: A