Go ahead and call Yonder Mountain String Band a bluegrass group if you want to, but if you take in some of their shows this summer”such as one at FloydFest in Floyd, VA on July 30 or their headlining gig at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison, CO on Aug. 20”prepare for a surprise.
Not only will the band likely debut some of its new music slated to be released in 2012, but all of their songs will showcase why they are revered as one of the most progressive bluegrass bands out there. Their signature sound not only swirls rock, pop and hints of other genres into the bluegrass mix but the players’ expertise have made them a darling of jam band aficionados.
“It’s cool there are a lot of other voices [in the] bluegrass world,” said bassist Ben Kaufmann. “I feel kind of like [our band is] part of an icebreaker. We’ve proven you don’t need drums and electric amplification to attract a young audience.”
Of course, bluegrass fans know that those who follow the genre are passionate about what constitutes true bluegrass. The father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, was a strict traditionalist who didn’t enjoy any type of variation in the sound. Not so strict is Del McCoury, who was a member of Monroe’s band and is now thought of by many as the leader of bluegrass. McCoury has not only championed progressive bluegrass bands but has mixed his own music with other genres including New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
A love for both traditional bluegrass and the new grass movement is what initially brought banjo player Dave Johnston and Jeff Austin, who plays mandolin in the band, together musically as students in Urbana, IL. Their collaborations continued and expanded after the two moved west and met Kaufmann and guitarist Adam Aijala.
Yonder Mountain String Band, which officially formed in 1998 and was playing legendary venues such as San Francisco’s Fillmore within a few years, sees their band as one of the pioneers in further opening up the genre to younger audiences.
“I see us being an important band because we have kind of taken the starch off the collars and church out of the music,” said Johnston, noting that although they don’t play more pop-oriented bluegrass, they are still fans of that part of the genre. “It’s kind of like we have fulfilled an essential need because kids come to see us. Although we’re based in bluegrass and new grass, we don’t try to limit our sound or what we want to do.”
That’s one reason younger audience respond to the sound, the band mates say. Pure forms of country, rock and other traditional genres are almost non existent in contemporary music.
“Country isn’t one thing, rock isn’t one thing, and that’s where music is going,” said Johnston. “We have existed our entire careers not caring what genre our music is from. We are looking for a blend of genres and experimentation…We aren’t looking for hits, we are looking for good songs.”
For news about the band, go to their web site.
There’s something in the bedrock of Boulder, Colorado, that’s producing seismic improvisational rock bands. String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band all hail from this stretch of the Rockies, where the jam flows like lava. Ivory Drive is also from Boulder, and though there’s no denying the jam element weaving through songs, the group also veers into jazz, folk, world music,even show tunes. Singer Van Wampler’s distinctive voice is comparable to the thick warble of Steven Page (formerly of Bare Naked Ladies). On the jaunty Breath of the Victory March, he leads listeners into a theatrical romp, where horns streak across battering pianos. Hear Me Out is equally punchy ” saxophone bleats and spaghetti pianos wind and ramble, jump and bob. But the combination of jam and Broadway is never more prominent than in the spirited swing of The Factory Machine. Jazz hands or noodle dance ” both are welcome here.