Filled with 1,300 fans, Sumtur Amphitheater was a perfect venue to host Yonder Mountain String Band — and a perfect venue for any summer concert, really. The large, sloping grass lawn and surrounding fields make for a beautiful sight with the band playing from the large bandshell.
Four guys held down the show for more than three hours Friday night in Papillion. And their fans, some packed in near the stage and others spread out dancing around the lawn, kept the energy up until the very end.
“We're grateful we get to hang out in this beautiful place with y'all,” mandolin player Jeff Austin said. “I do believe a beautiful lawn and people dancing on it and bluegrass go well together.”
Some in dreadlocks, flowy dresses, tie-dye and bandannas mixed with others in shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops and Ray-Bans to make for an audience of mostly young people (though some were old enough to bring their young children along). Hula hoopers and barefoot hippies danced around in the grass, and others stuck themselves close to the stage in a crowd that, like tall grass on a breezy day, never stopped moving.
It was a loose sort of night. Yonder Mountain moved between bluegrass and string-tinged jam band songs like the Grateful Dead fell face-first into a banjo.
Some fans were barefoot. Most danced. Some brought families. One guy had his dog. The smell of pot smoke (occasionally) drifted over the crowd.
Some fans I overheard talked about traveling to Omaha on Friday, and they were already planning their trip to Denver today to see the band finish its summer tour.
The members of the foursome seemed like they were each trying to outdo their bandmates — a little faster, a better melody, more applause.
Some tunes, such as “Hit Parade of Love” and “High on a Hilltop,” were more straight bluegrass: super-fast notes picked out while the four sang great harmonies.
Speaking of bluegrass, the Devil Makes Three opened the show, and the band's “Do Wrong Right” was a highlight of the trio's set.
Yonder Mountain deviated from the bluegrass framework other times in instrumentals and as breakdowns in various songs, where it would go off on long tangents of improvisation and noodling.
The set's first song, “Shady Grove,” lasted 10 minutes and, later, “Lookin' Back Over My Shoulder” had a few five-minute segues into long jams.
Through the band's three-hour set, I tapped my foot so much that my calves got tired.
Even the band was enjoying the venue.
“This is the best time I've ever had in Omaha, Nebraska,” said banjo man Dave Johnston.
“This place is awesome,” added bassist Ben Kaufmann. “I love this place.”
As the band played notes faster than I can type, fans hooted, whistled and cheered for songs such as “Half Moon Rising,” one of the best of the set.
An encore began with an off-the-cuff version of “God Bless America” (someone set off some fireworks) and the energetic songs, “40 Miles From Denver” and “Going to the Races,” during which nearly everyone shouted all the words as they danced through the last notes.
“Thank you very much, Papillion,” Kaufmann said. “I don't know about you all and I can't speak for everyone in the world, but I had a blast tonight. Thanks for being a part of it.”