Call it the mountain muse, the happiness of the heights, or maybe simply the cool mix of altitude and attitude. Yonder Mountain String Band has captured that freewheeling spirit for the better part of 17 years, a connection that has to do with more than just the imagery implied in the band's name. Notoriously independent, band members blend the frenzy of bluegrass with improvisational instincts and populist sentiments, a combination that's helped them become both festival favorites and indie entrepreneurs.
Despite the departure of cofounder Jeff Austin, core members Adam Aijala (guitar, vocals), Ben Kaufman (bass, vocals), and Dave Johnston (banjo, vocals) press on, and Black Sheep, their first album since Austin opted out, shows little change in a sound that's earned them a fierce following in their home state of Colorado and beyond.
Having recruited two new colleagues in Austin's absence — mandolin player Jacob Jolliff and fiddler Allie Kral — Yonder Mountain String Band continues to purvey its robust intents, even while ensuring that Black Sheep is more songcentric than ever before. A lively if unlikely take on the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love" shows a renewed interest in expanding the group's parameters, and while other songs tap the combined assets of its instrumental arsenal, the sound is as focused as it is frenzied.
"One of the things we found out is that you can record as long as you want and go over it and over it and get it to where you want it to go," Aijala explains. "But when you don't have a stage and you don't have a crowd, you know it's going to be different. Still, we generally record all our tracks live."
"Everyone writes, and each of us develops certain sounds and ideas on our own, so it's not like we say, 'Here's a song, and here's the solo part, and all that,'?" Johnston adds. "Oftentimes, it will be something like one of us will present a song and someone will say, 'What if we do this instead?' And then someone else will say, 'Oh, that sounds great.' So it's a pretty cool thing in that regard."
"We can take an old song that we've been doing for 15 years and make it a jam vehicle or an improvisational vehicle," Kaufman chimes in. "We'll try to have some space in there so that maybe the guys — or myself, if I'm lucky — can always come up with something new. Plus, there's always this sort of new generation of material that always keeps you thinking. Dave's got a new one that almost sounds like Motown, which means I get to come up with the best James Jamerson-sounding bass line that I can possibly do. I've never had that opportunity!"
Still, for all the improvisation and interplay they share among themselves, it's their adherence to a populist precept that proves their prime motivation. That, Aijala says, is what they bear most in mind. "The audience is the fifth member of the band," he insists. "Their contribution is essential to what we do. You feel it. The importance of the audience in terms of their energy is hard to talk about in words, but it's so important."
Yonder Mountain String Band
7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 6, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $30 plus fees. Visit ticketmaster.com.
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