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Yonder Mountain exploring new territory

Joel Stonington
Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band plays a two-night stand at the Wheeler Opera House on April 14 and 15. (Courtesy Vanguard Records)
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Take a left, a sharp left and another left and you’ll end up where Yonder Mountain is with their new CD. It’s a departure. So be ready for a few quick turns tonight and Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House, where Yonder Mountain String Band is kicking off their spring tour and kicking off their new material. OK, OK, it’s still only four guys on stage, and they’ll definitely be ripping out some classic bluegrass numbers, but electric guitar? Feedback? Not what one might expect at a Yonder concert.”Three days of rehearsal [this] week,” said mandolin player Jeff Austin, who mentioned that they haven’t played most of the new material live. “We’ve been sound-checking some of it. Now we get to put it in the line of fire.” On the phone, Austin sounded a little bit nervous, which makes it clear they’ve stepped outside their comfort zone and pushed the boundaries of experimentation.”The people that are going to come have the right mind-frame. I don’t think anything will shock them,” said Austin. “We’ve got the best people in the world that listen to us play. They let us experiment. They let us know if they like it or hate it. Gimme a response. Good or bad, let’s make it happen.”Austin’s nervousness, however, was punctuated with impatient excitement; he couldn’t seem to wait to get on the road and see if people liked their new songs.

“It’s got us pumped,” said Austin. “Driving down the street the other day, a commercial radio station put on our tune. There’s Dave playing banjo. We were followed by ‘Refugee’ by Tom Petty and ‘Crash’ by Dave Matthews. It makes me go ‘let’s get after this s—.’ I’m dying to play in front of people.”At times, the new CD (out on Vanguard on May 9) sounds more like Dave Matthews or even like the Beatles than what one might expect from Yonder Mountain. Some of the songs are more melodically driven, based around a riff and built off that. “Without being challenged, things get lame really fast,” he said. “We can think back to times when we hit a rut and we’d say all right, what are we going to do. We have no desire to smash what’s come before. We just want to fill it with as much newness as possible.”That sounds like the basics of Yonder. They’re the kind of band where you can go to two concerts in a row and hear completely different sets. They play reggae covers and shift into songs with a driving, hard-rock beat before suddenly shooting into fast bluegrass. Yonder Mountain has been around for eight years, ever since they found each other at an impromptu jam at a club in Boulder and lined up their first gig soon after. They had a relatively rapid road to success soon after they started playing together. They have their own record company, Frog Pad Records, though this latest release is on Vanguard, and their own music festival, the Northwest String Summit, taking place Aug. 25-27 at Horning’s Hideout in North Plains, Ore. “It’s the family picnic that should never end,” said Austin. “Hell, we’ve been involved with the concept for seven years. It’s huge for us. It’s a party that we get to throw. We get to pick and choose – who’d we like to hang out with in the woods for three days?”

As for this year, Austin was tight-lipped about the line-up but sounded happy about whom he expected to be there. “It’s developing quite nicely,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of people hanging out. When they make their presence felt, you’re damn sure to know.”Of course, Yonder will play for three straight nights, and they’re the kind of band that pulls that off just fine. They’re hard to sit still for, though they’ve never had a drummer. It’s just four musicians, all strings, Austin on mandolin, Ben Kaufman on bass, Dave Johnston on banjo, Adam Aijala on guitar, and they all sing. “We’re not hiring a drummer to tour with us,” said Austin. “Yeah, I’ve heard rumor of drums. In fact I’ve heard more than rumor. It’s something we’ve been wanting to experiment with for a while.”They saved a large amount of new material for quite a while, waiting to put this record together. Part of the reason was producer Tom Rothrock (who produced Elliott Smith and Beck).”It’s that buddy saying, ‘I don’t think you’d hurt yourself if you jumped off that bridge,'” commented Austin, laughing. “They give you courage in different ways. They can also give you an ear and say, ‘No.'”Rothrock first saw them play for the first time as part of the Acoustic Planet Tour with Béla Fleck and Keller Williams.”I’m dying for it to come out,” said Austin. “I’ve had some amazing times in this band. To have it continually go up is really good.”

He commented that they’re happy to start off this tour in Aspen, especially since they’ve never played the Wheeler before. The shows are probably going to be damn hot, with all that nervous energy and new material just waiting to spring forth. Though the excitement was hard to hold back, he did stress that they’re still Yonder. “Things will be introduced slowly,” he said, “we don’t want to frighten.”New album moves into country rock and back againThe first bars of the new Yonder Mountain String Band album sound just like U2. There’s baseline guitar strumming and stratospheric background effects. It’s just enough to wonder, is this Yonder? Then they drop into the more standard Yonderizing, bluegrass sounds and harmonies. The CD tugs back and forth a bit as they play with a move into folk/rock territory that’s completely new to the band. Sometimes it’s not clear whether it’s bluegrass or Beatles. At other times they sound as standard, straight-laced and on key as Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

“We’ve never really held off material, but we felt this was worth saving for, to really kind of punctuate it,” said mandolin player Jeff Austin. “We signed this record deal, they said ‘hey, save some of this, it might be a cool one.'”The goal when recording in the studio was to pull it off live on-stage. And to some extent, the album has some of the live feel. They toss in the classic old-timey feeling songs to slow it down a bit, keep that bluegrass sound in there. But then the next song starts off with a drum beat, what could be expected from the local country station. “Fastball” and “Troubled Mind,” two of the tracks off the album, are going to make the dancers happy. They’ll break these out just when everyone is starting to get really pumped. No question, they’re crowd pleasers. Fast. Real hot pickin’.More of the album, however, is melodically driven, with folky songs that bend the possibilities of bluegrass. Part of that was producer Tom Rothrock, who has produced for Elliott Smith, Beck and James Blunt. “We liked him right away,” said Austin. “He hasn’t heard of a lot of artists who influenced us so it was a clean slate. He hears us and listens in a different way. He made it clear – this is not to destroy what you’ve built up – and we said, ‘we’ve been wanting to do this for a while.’ Now it was time to go back to influences we had as kids. None of us grew up with bluegrass; end of story.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com


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