Music News & Reviews

Down a mandolinist, Yonder Mountain turns to McCoury band

Yonder Mountain String Band photographed in San Francisco, CA April 15, 2012©Jay Blakesberg
shot 2 (siting on steps with instruments and sunglasses):
(L to R) Jeff Austin, Adam Aijala, Dave Johnston, Ben Kaufmann
Yonder Mountain String Band photographed in San Francisco, CA April 15, 2012©Jay Blakesberg shot 2 (siting on steps with instruments and sunglasses): (L to R) Jeff Austin, Adam Aijala, Dave Johnston, Ben Kaufmann

It was a happy crossroads where Yonder Mountain String Band found itself parked in November.

On one side sat confirmed plans for the first tour of 2014 by the Colorado-based quartet, which has been employing traditional bluegrass instrumentation to address jam-style grooves and improvisation for more than 15 years. On the other was the daughter that Yonder mandolinist Jeff Austin and his wife were about welcome into the world.

Of course, neither party could have forecast that both endeavors would collide this month.

The solution — the "only" choice, as described by Austin on the band's website — called for a temporary shake-up in the Yonder ranks. Austin would spend January at home while his longtime bandmates — banjoist Dave Johnston, bassist Ben Kaufmann and guitarist Adam Aijala — would continue with road duties.

Luckily, 15 years of steady touring establishes some strong professional friendships. So Yonder Mountain called on two members of the Grammy- winning Del McCoury Band — mandolinist Ronnie McCoury and Ashland-born fiddler Jason Carter — to augment the trio for most of its January concert dates.

Sweetening the deal would be a full opening set at these shows by The Travelin' McCourys, which is the Del McCoury Band minus patriarch Del.

"We're just trying to come up with something that is unique and sure to be a lot of fun," Johnston said. "So we're going to Yonder-ize Ronnie and Jason, and have them run the gauntlet with us. No doubt they will run it very successfully. So while it's not going to be the same thing as a typical Yonders show, we're really excited about getting the opportunity to expand our musical imaginations in different directions and maybe come up with different ways to work with Yonder in the future."

On paper, it might seem the Yonders and the McCourys come from stylistically different camps. But while the latter is an immensely proficient and steadfast group rooted in bluegrass tradition, they have been broad-minded when it comes to collaboration and building a young fan base for roots-driven string music. So over the years, the McCourys have shared stages with such jam band stalwarts as the Allman Brothers Band, Phish, Keller Williams and Yonder Mountain.

"This situation speaks not of a categorical musical character," Johnston said. "It speaks of a love for musical expression, a way to reach people with a traditional template.

"The McCourys were certainly role models for me. They're great friends and a great band. There are a lot of benefits to just knowing that whole family. So we're really pumped. Still, this kind of collaboration is not all that common in the bluegrass world. It's not that common, period."

The Yonders have performed regularly with guest artists. For its recent five-night New Year's engagement at Boulder Theater in Colorado, the band enlisted new-grass heroes Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, Pete Wernick and Nick Forster from the landmark Colorado bluegrass band Hot Rize, and even pop celeb John Oates. But this month marks the first time Yonder Mountain has undertaken an entire leg of a tour with collaborators outside the band.

"Here's the thing with bluegrass and bluegrass-related music for any band," Johnston said. "Chemistry is chemistry. You can't necessarily re- create it in personnel. Chemistry informs a big part of Yonder Mountain, and I don't look at that lightly. Having said that, there is now a different chemistry before us to explore. We can get our beakers and our flasks out and can start adding things. Frankly, I'm excited to see what this new configuration feels like. It's all a mix of emotion and considerations."

But perhaps the most satisfying aspect to the quintet version of Yonder Mountain is that it was not born out of the usual animosities that often divide bands permanently.

"The impetus behind doing this is one of goodwill in hoping Jeff's new family member gets off to a good start," Johnston said. "To that end, though, it's also going to be fun watching these guys from what is arguably one of the greatest bluegrass bands of all time lay down a little knowledge on us in how they do things. Maybe we can even pick up a few things for when Jeff comes back to the band in March.

"This is a unique, one-time-only thing — a chance to rekindle our musical imaginations. That's pretty exciting."