Yonder Mountain String Band preps for New Year’s Eve concert in Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: Yonder Mountain String Band
Where: Wheeler Opera Hosue
When: Tuesday, Dec. 31, 9:30 p.m.
How much: $130-$175
More info: A pre-concert fireworks viewing party, with light appetizers, starts at 7:45 p.m.
Yonder Mountain String Band is saying goodbye to a somber 2019 and looking into the 2020s, as the beloved Colorado bluegrass band prepares to headline the Wheeler Opera House on New Year’s Eve.
The band’s co-founder Jeff Austin, who left Yonder Mountain in 2014, died suddenly in June at age 45. The band, its fans and the progressive bluegrass community paid tribute to Austin last month in a benefit concert at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield.
The show brought out seemingly everybody from the bluegrass scene that Yonder Mountain has flourished in since its founding in 1998. Railroad Earth and Leftover Salmon were there, the Infamous Stringdusters and the Travelin’ McCourys, Bill Nershi and Noam Pikelny, Hot Rise and Sam Bush.
“It felt good to be welcomed onstage in the manner that we were,” Yonder Mountain banjo player Dave Johnston said in a recent phone interview from his home in Boulder. “It had a lasting, positive imprint on me. I think Yonder Mountain String Band might have been more important than any of the four of us could possibly have desired.”
Austin, he believes, would have been gratified by the night’s performances from his music community.
“It’s terrible circumstances, under which you come to those realizations,” Johnston said. “But I think Jeff would’ve been happy to know the impact he was a part of.”
When Austin left the band, Yonder Mountain chose to evolve — to try out some more traditional bluegrass configurations than its experimental early years, and some more structured songwriting, evidenced on its 2015 album “Black Sheep” and 2017’s “Love. Ain’t Love.”
Johnston said the band’s creative process has shifted to focus on songcraft to build on its improvisatory roots.
“One of the wonderful and awful things about the original band was that you never knew what was going to happen from measure to measure,” Johnston said with a laugh. “Everyone was freestyling everything. … What was lucky was that you could count on everyone, more or less, to help you have a good experience.”
They’ve hung onto the curiosity and the creative spark of those wild early years, while reining in some of the chaos. As they’ve matured and membership has evolved, they have tried to hang onto that freewheeling spirit while imposing some structure on the process.
“We’ve found a way for the seat-of-the-pants parts for the project to come out, and for us to refine it in the more structured part,” he explained.
For the New Year’s Eve show, of course, they’re planning a big and crowd-pleasing set that builds up to midnight.
“All bets are off,” Johnston said. “We have some things in the works that are not the usual. And a big part of having a successful New Year’s show is to have a set list that is going to connect with people and have an upward motion, an uplifting element.”
Though Yonder Mountain plays Aspen regularly, the holiday show marks the band’s first time back at the Wheeler since the old days of the 7908 Songwriter Festival, when they jammed with John Oates. They’ve made Belly Up their Aspen venue in the years since.
And while much has changed for Yonder Mountain, the band’s brilliant knack for playing far-flung cover songs remains the same. Recent shows have included five-part bluegrass arrangements of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop.”
Finding covers is an alchemical process for the band. When they connect with a song — no matter the genre — they know they can make it work in a string-band arrangement.
“These songs, they have an emotional resonance with all of us, in one way or another, so they’re easy to pick,” he said. “There’s just some component that is mysterious and cool and magical. … We know a cover song is going to stick around when everybody feels that way about it.”
Looking ahead at the 2020s, Johnston said the band’s devoted fans should expect big things from Yonder Mountain.
“I feel like we are on the cusp of a creative breakthrough,” he said. “I’ve been writing constantly. There’s definitely a lot of new music that is starting to percolate, and I’d like to get cracking on some stuff to get it out there.”
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