Yonder Mountain String Band’s sound doesn’t quite range all the way from down-home to outer space. But it can head closer to the astral plane than one might expect from a band with a name like that.
The acoustic quartet can pull off a run of tight bluegrass moves when it wants to. But a generation or two after bands like New Grass Revival made the bluegrass world safe for rock ’n’ roll influences, Yonder ventured a step further, into the idioms of the late-1990’s jam band scene. And there it continues to roam.
“We tried our earnest to be the best little bluegrass band that we could be, and it just became fairly apparent that we were drawn to a different thing. And luckily we didn’t fight it. We let ourselves go there,” remarks Jeff Austin, mandolin ace. “None of us really approach our instruments traditionally, and when we brought in original songs it became fairly apparent that there was something more going on that just playing a three-minute song and being done with it.”
Yonder Mountain String Band formed in 1998 around Boulder, Colo., among four area transplants who really only took to bluegrass and acoustic roots music in their college years. But that music seems to run in the mountain streams of the high country, and offered a common ground for them to mix and match their other influences.
“There is just an entrenched and well-established bluegrass foothold there. You can’t live in Colorado and not know what bluegrass, or at least Colorado bluegrass, is. It’s just in your face. It was for me,” remarks Ben Kaufmann, who plays upright bass with the group.
Austin, who hails from outside Chicago, spent his high school years honing his vocal chops and exploring musical theater. Kaufmann and guitarist Adam Aijala both grew up in Massachusetts (Stowe and Sterling, respectively), listening to plenty of classic rock. (Kaufman was a high school intern at radio station WAAF.) Dave Johnston, another Illinois native, may have felt the strongest influence from the tradition of American roots music when he learned banjo in college. In the official band bio, Johnston states a goal that reflects the band’s efforts to succeed both inside and outside of the traditional-music scene: “[T]o become an ambassador of acoustic related music as well as a respected player within the strict bluegrass idiom.”
In separate telephone interviews, both Austin and Kaufmann use the word “bluegrass” to describe what they do, but there’s a tinge of irony there. The band’s repertoire has included traditional songs like “Boatman’s Dance” and covers of tunes by J.J. Cale, the Beatles, and Ozzy Osbourne, but is mostly stocked with originals penned by each band member. (They all sing, though Austin is more or less the frontman.) In concert, Yonder is prone to craft mini-suites that flow in and out of songs, recalling some of the hyperactive set lists of the Grateful Dead.
“What we all like to do is make it look like it’s completely effortless and off the cuff,” Austin says, but there’s a lot of care put into each night’s unique set list. Each tour, band members receive packets of information showing what they played on recent visits to every city on the itinerary. “We have songs that allow themselves to open up to segue possibilities where a song might begin, a couple songs happen in the middle and then the [first] song ends. We would hate to go to a town and do that same kind of segue thing again,” Austin explains.
Yonder’s show at House of Blues on Friday will be its first in Boston since October 2010. But Austin says the same research process, and avoidance of repeats, will apply. “There will be people who remember” the last show here, he says. “In this day and age, there will be people who say, ‘They played the same thing the last time they were here — three years ago.’”
The band’s blend of sounds has frequently been called “jamgrass.” Kaufmann says his feelings about the term have changed over the years, but he’s OK with it but wary of a perception that jam bands focus on in-the-moment inspiration at the expense of careful songcraft.
“We’re not throwing three chords together, making up some stupid stuff and using that as an excuse to improvise,” he says. And even when it comes to the improvisation, it’s anything but casual. “People might think of it as an unfocused thing, but it actually requires total concentration. You’re living on the razor’s edge when you’re jamming on a song that’s 160 beats per minute. There is no room for error.”
With more than 15 years together, Yonder Mountain String Band has evolved from a quirky, almost musically subversive upstart to its current role as elder statesman of a splinter-genre it created. It’s not a role they anticipated, but both Austin and Kaufmann say they’re warmed up to the idea after resisting it.
“There’s a whole other generation of bands coming up,” Kaufmann says, “taking something that they listen to — and in their case they’re listening to us — and expanding on it and taking the influences of their childhood and putting their whole spin on it. That's how it's supposed to go.”Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @jeremydgoodwin.