The members of Yonder Mountain String Band gave up game plans a long time ago. That doesn’t mean the Colorado-rooted ensemble doesn’t play without a purpose. Its longstanding popularity among jam-band and progressive acoustic music audiences will tell you that isn’t the case. It’s just that the quintet doesn’t lock into any set pattern for composing and performing a tune. Maybe that explains how it finds so much invention in traditional bluegrass instrumentation.
“Our limits are in our abilities, and that’s it, really,” said guitarist Adam Aijala, who will return to Lexington when the band takes over Manchester Music Hall on Halloween night. “We can try anything. Of course, that doesn’t mean it will always work. But we can try anything.
“Just listen to other acoustic bands out there. You’ve got the really technical bluegrass musicians, and then you’ve got Split Lip Rayfield (the Kansas-bred acoustic group with leanings to cowpunk). You’ve got the trads like the Del McCoury Band and then you’ve got the (comparatively progressive) Punch Brothers. There is so much you can do with this music. It’s limitless.”
The latest chapter in YMSB’s new-generation string music is “Love. Ain’t Love.” Released in June, the album is the second studio recording since Aijala, bassist Ben Kaufmann and banjo player Dave Johnston (all founding members) enlisted fiddler Allie Kral and mandolinist Jake Joliff, marking the first (and so far only) lasting personnel shift in the band’s history.
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“For Ben, Dave and I, the transition just brought us tighter together,” Aijala said. “Then having Jacob and Allie has rejuvenated all of us. They push us a little bit, because they’re both super talented. We know we can trust them musically to come up with something really cool.”
What that leads to on “Love. Ain’t Love” is a batch of songs that draw inspiration, if not direct stylistic color, from such diverse sources as funk (“Take a Chance on Me”) and metal (“Fall Out of Line”). But the songwriting process for the record, as has been the case with much of the band’s music, was seldom singular or conventional. For Aijala, that meant scouring licks and melodic ideas recorded years ago. The compositional base for “Fall Out of Line,” he said, is more than a decade old.
“That’s why I try to record and document everything that I think of, because you never know when you might use it. In the moment, they’re recorded with no intentions, really. It’s just, ‘I have this lick. I might as well document it just in case.’ That’s the cool thing about how we work. It’s also one of the great things that happens when you have multiple songwriters. You can get input and ideas from all these different angles.”
Then there is the way these songs play out onstage. Ask Yonder Mountain fans about what distinguishes the band and they are likely to mentionthe performance term “jam.” That’s certainly the practiced tag to describe the way the band’s music morphs and elongates in concert. Aijala is hesitant to fully embrace the term, but he understands the audience fascination. He views his band’s onstage explorations as improvisations. On special occasions over the years, some of progressive acoustic music’s most famed pioneers have sat in on such experimentation. The list includes Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Darol Anger. Mostly though, Yonder Mountain’s artistic reputation has been built on the improvisation that bolsters an already hearty band spirit.
“I would love to have more songs that we can really work with in a live setting,” Aijala said. “For me, it’s just hard to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to write this kind of song.’ That’s not how my mind works, to go with what just comes to me. Sometimes it works just as well to say, ‘Hey, I want a song that stretches out a bit more.’ That’s what I love about writing with these guys. We’re not ever married to any artistic idea, be it a lyric or a lick. I think you can accomplish a lot more if you have a more open mind.”