An evolving Yonder Mountain String Band returns to Aspen for two-night run
If You Go …
Who: Yonder Mountain String Band
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Tuesday, Aug. 18 and Wednesday, Aug. 19, 9 p.m.
How much: $45 GA; $65 reserved
Tickets: Belly Up box office; www.bellyupaspen.com
When founding member Jeff Austin left Yonder Mountain String Band last year, the Colorado-based jamgrass band faced a choice between extinction or evolution.
The band evolved, as evidenced in its new album, “Black Sheep,” which showcases a Yonder Mountain with a new element – a fiddle, played by new member Allie Kral – complementing its progressive take on bluegrass. The reconstituted Yonder Mountain, with Kral and mandolin player Jacob Joliff joining guitarist Adam Aijala, bassist Ben Kaufmann and banjoist Dave Johnston, plays a two-night run at Belly Up Aspen Tuesday and Wednesday.
It’s the first time Yonder Mountain has tried out the traditional bluegrass setup of mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle and bass.
“The five-piece traditional band has been around forever but it’s new for Yonder Mountain String Band,” Johnston said from a recent tour break in Boulder. “So I think we’re going to develop it a little bit differently than what’s already happened before. It’s really exciting. It unlocks new parts of the musical imagination.”
The fiddle has put a more traditional bluegrass backbone on the band’s jam-centric newgrass approach, and the new lineup has been well-recieved on the new album and this summer’s tour. On the new record, the song “I’m Lost” opens with about a minute of hard-charging violin and the stand-out track “Drawing a Melody” includes an intense banjo-and-violin bridge.
“One of the biggest ways it’s changed is that we have more people, more ideas to work with [and] to try to explore when we’re coming up with new songs,” Johnston.
The new album also includes a cover of the punk band the Buzzcocks’s “Ever Fallen in Love.” Yonder Mountain dependably whips out some creative covers in concert, wandering hither and thither across genres, but this punk rearrangement is particularly close to Johnston’s heart. In middle school in Illinois, punk rock was the first genre of music that he dove into. Reading zines and hunting for recordings by the Dead Kennedys and The Germs, counterintuitively, prepared him for the bluegrass subculture.
“I spent a lot of time listening and digging into punk rock culture,” he said. “It’s kind of a nerdy thing, this world of seven inches and green vinyl and record conventions. It’s a fun part of that musical culture and not so different from bluegrass in that regard. People who are into it are super into it and it requires a lot of passionate investigation.”
Yonder Mountain made stops in Aspen since soon after its formation in Nederland in 1998, playing Belly Up and the Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival, and jamming with John Oates at the Wheeler during the 7908 Songwriters Festival. Though at this point they’ve long been a national act, Colorado has stayed at the center of Yonder Mountain’s musical life. The band launched “Black Sheep” earlier this summer at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and after their two-night run at Belly Up, they head back to the Front Range for an Aug. 21 headlining performance at Red Rocks Ampitheatre.
“It means a lot to play Colorado,” Johnston said. “It’s where our careers started and where we continue to be nourished. That comes out in the way we play and the intensity of the show we want to put on.”
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