The night started out the Boston's Deadly Gentlemen, a band with musical chops that stand up with to its contemporaries. The Deadly Gentlemen features Greg Liszt on banjo, Stash Wyslouch on guitar, Mike Barnett on fiddle, Dominick Leslie on mandolin and Sam Grisman on double bass -- each took a turn stepping up to the mic. At first the strength of the Deadly Gentlemen might seem to be its musicianship, but their use of vocal orchestration is key. This unconventional use of vocal harmonies involves an acrobatic bouncing of voices that blend to add emphasis on phrases, melodies and lyrical content.
The band played a mixture of originals and covers: "Let It Bleed" by the Rolling Stones and "Touch of Grey" by the Grateful Dead. The strength of the band's songwriting is study in diversity; from the country-esque "Moonshiner," the almost punk-influenced "Police" (which seemed to evoke Black Flag's "Police Story") and the bluegrass burner of "Old Barns." The latter skewed the Irish and Scottish influences of bluegrass for Middle Eastern phrasing that popped up every so often in the melody lines played by Mike Barnett and Dominick Leslie.
With a quick gander at the stage one would automatically assume that Yonder Mountain String Band plays typical bluegrass; after all, mandolin, banjo, guitar and bass are the band's instruments. When the band kicked into its first song it was evident that this was more than just a bluegrass show. Yonder Mountain String Band has a sound that creates a jam-band groove with traditional string-band instrumentation that bands like the Grateful Dead, Phish and the String Cheese Incident have dabbled in; but those bands have not taken full advantage of the sounds' power. This quartet from Nederland, Col. -- made up of Jeff Austin on mandolin, Ben Kaufman on bass, Adam Aijala on guitar and Dave Johnston on banjo (each member taking turns fronting the band vocally) -- brought an energy to the stage that is as reminiscent of Led Zeppelin as it is Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.
The Yonder Mountain String Band blasted through two sets at the Pageant and brought the crowd to a frenzy its improvisational muscle. The night was highlighted with songs that ranged from humorous romps to the pull of lonesome heart strings. The diversity in the performance is evident in the songs. The band barreled through songs like "Half Moon Rising" and "How 'Bout You?" which showcased a focused pop sensibility.
These songs were offset with traditional bluegrass instrumentals along with the fun Germanic romp of "Polka on a Banjo" and the seafaring bluegrass shanty of "Boatman's Dance." Despite the diversity of the songs stylistically each song blended perfectly to create a set that was consistent and fluid. As Yonder Mountain String Band played the atmosphere inside the Pageant was more akin to that of a house party with a friend's band jamming in the background rather than that of a large-scale rock show complete with lights and a high performance P.A.
At the end of the night it was about the songs and the musicianship that both the Deadly Gentlemen and Yonder Mountain String Band brought to the stage. These elements created an atmosphere that primed the audience members to take themselves away from the day-to-day obstacles of life and to just have a good time with drink, dance and great music.
While the Yonder Mountain String band is rooted in traditions of acoustic music, it is the spirit of the San Francisco dance bands (the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane) that gives new life to its roots.