Music News & Reviews

Yonder Mountain String Band likes to shake up its sound and listeners' expectations

Yonder Mountain String Band hasn't changed its roster in 12 years. From left, Dave Johnston, Ben Kaufmann, Jeff Austin, Adam Aijala.
Yonder Mountain String Band hasn't changed its roster in 12 years. From left, Dave Johnston, Ben Kaufmann, Jeff Austin, Adam Aijala.

Look at the name — shoot, take a glance at the group itself — and you might think you have the Yonder Mountain String Band pegged.

But appearances and instrumentation don't add up to the obvious for this long-running Colorado troupe. Surface indicators suggest bluegrass. So does the musical makeup of guitar, banjo, string bass and mandolin. And bluegrass certainly has its say in the songs.

But the bottom line at Yonder Mountain is that strings aren't always the thing.

"I don't think what we do really has that much to do with the instrumentation," said Yonder Mountain guitarist Adam Aijala. "You can do whatever you want with whatever instruments as long as the music you're making and putting out matters.

"We would never have had the same kind of success we've enjoyed if we stuck to our guns and said, 'By God, we're going to be a traditional bluegrass band.' A lot of our success has come from taking risks, like playing a Pink Floyd tune or something by The Beatles one minute and then following it with maybe some hard-core Jimmy Martin bluegrass. The instrumentation doesn't matter. It's what you're doing with it."

For more than 12 years, Yonder Mountain has used bluegrass instrumentation as a sort of introductory tongue for communicating with jam-band audiences through extensive improvisation-savvy sets. Sometimes the intensely, almost physically rhythmic music borrows from rock, funk and reggae. Other times, it adheres to a more obvious bluegrass tradition.

The repertoire is just as diverse. Yonder Mountain is equally at home with an original hybrid tune, such as Honestly, from the band's recent album The Show, as it is with designing string-band colors for a groove-savvy cover of Talking Heads' Girlfriend Is Better.

Through incessant touring that has consistently trumped meager radio airplay, Yonder Mountain has watched a cultish-size fan base that barely filled the now-defunct Lynagh's Music Club, the last Lexington venue where it performed, swell to one that regularly fills Colorado's prestigious Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

The band's music has grown, too. But then, there has always been room enough for a high-profile guest to sit in.

"With the majority of our shows, it's just the four of us," mandolinist Jeff Austin said. "But when there is the chance to play with guys like (progressive string stylists) Darol Anger or Danny Barnes or Andy Hall, we can't help but get psyched. To tell these guys to tear into something and then watch them do it? Forget it.

"There are the four of us, obviously. But there is also this cool pocket that exists in the music. I remember when we first formed, I was going, 'Man, should we get a fiddle player or a dobro player? Is our sound going to be enough? And it was totally enough. But there is still that space in the music that lets us invite any number of great musicians to come up and become friends with us. It's a pretty cool thing."

One such pal dominates The Show. Helping out on six of the album's14 songs is Pete Thomas, longtime musical sidekick of Elvis Costello. He's also a drummer, which creates another dynamic within the band's string sound.

"You know, in the back of my mind, I'm saying, 'I'm just glad I can do this,'" said banjoist Dave Johnston (bassist Ben Kaufmann completes the lineup). "I feel lucky to be in this situation with this particular group of guys. It's a big accomplishment, too. We have kept the same personnel together for 12 years. We're entering a realm of bands where that is unheard of. That's especially true in bluegrass, where everyone is a hired gun.

"That extends to our crew, also. We've maintained this kind of core family."

Among the family members is former Lexingtonian Ben Hines, a sound engineer who worked at Lynagh's before being hired away as touring sound man for the band more than a decade ago.

"I don't know where we would be without Ben," Austin said. "We played a festival last year, and our decibel level shot higher than levels by Widespread Panic and Umphrey's McGee. People were going, 'Oh, there's a little four-piece bluegrass band. How cute that is.' And then this jet engine comes out of the speaker that is louder than some the loudest rock bands. That was pretty cool."