Yonder Mountain String Band: This Is (Almost) 40
Photo by Dave Vann
The day before the taco tour, Yonder guitarist Adam Aijala led his own excursion, taking a group of fans deep-sea fishing. Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt and Railroad Earth’s Carey Harmon also led their respective boats but Aijala’s was the clear winner, having caught (and released) a sizable sailfish. Wearing a Black Flag T-shirt and drinking canned beer on the afterdeck, Aijala had on his vacation face—after all, he was trolling for game fish on a boat somewhere in the Caribbean Sea.
He looks young for his 39 years. His calm demeanor brings to mind one of his old nicknames—Zero. As Johnston explains, “You watch him play and you watch his expression and you don’t really see a lot of extra movement.” And while that sort of stage presence may stand in contrast to Austin’s, it’s the perfect bearing for a fisherman.
“I’ve done a lot of ocean fishing but never caught a fish like that,” Aijala tells me on the bus ride back to the resort, afterward. “It’s pretty cool.”
He’s also never played an event quite like Strings & Sol. Produced by the same skilled team that creates Jam Cruise, Mayan Holidaze and Panic en la Playa, Strings & Sol stands apart from all of them in that it is quite specifically geared toward bluegrass. We’re in the state of Quintana Roo. This is Mayan territory. The closest banjo shop isn’t anywhere near here. It’s a long way from the Delta, a long way from the Tennessee hills and a very long way—2,605 miles, to be exact—from the band’s Colorado headquarters.
Yonder plays three complete shows over four nights. And while they also host an annual festival back in the States—the Northwest String Summit at Horning’s Hideout in Oregon—Strings & Sol is unlike any adventure the band has embarked on before. But get used to it because it’s going to be an annual affair. If Strings & Sol is not your father’s bluegrass festival, then you can be sure that Yonder Mountain is not your father’s bluegrass band.
Considered outsiders by bluegrass purists but bluegrass ambassadors by fans of most other types of music, the four distinct individuals that collectively form Yonder are all equally anomalous when it comes to their respective histories with the art form. Aijala and Johnston came to bluegrass via the Grateful Dead when they both, separately, discovered Jerry Garcia’s band Old and In the Way. Bassist Ben Kaufmann’s gateway was Phish. And, to this day, Austin considers himself a “certified nerd of Phish music.” He still sees them live as often as possible and isn’t afraid to admit that nothing gets him off quite like Phish does. Down at Strings & Sol, on a stage that sits directly on the beach, Yonder covered Phish’s “Sand” and the Grateful Dead’s “Althea.”
The Del McCoury Band’s Jason Carter—bluegrass royalty—joined Yonder on fiddle for all three of their Strings & Sol shows. But during their final set, they brought up Umphrey’s McGee’s Joel Cummins on keyboards—a representative from the parallel jamband scene. (The bands now share a manager and have been longtime friends; Austin released the 2010 album One Man Show with Umphrey’s guitarist/singer Brendan Bayliss under the moniker 30db in the wake of each of them having gone through a tumultuous divorce.) This is bluegrass without borders. Screw the purists.
“The thing people always forget is that I’m not from the fucking old hometown,” says Austin. It’s the final night of Strings & Sol and while we chat outside at dusk, the resort staff sets up a Mexican fiesta in an adjacent outdoor courtyard, complete with a mechanical bull. “I didn’t milk cows,” says Austin, unaware of the bull. “I was a latchkey kid. I watched cooking shows on PBS while my mom was working her third job of the day. I wasn’t in the hills, fiddling with gramps. I grew up watching Monty Python and bad sitcoms and listening to pop music on the radio. That’s what I write a lot of, lately. I have a big handful of new tunes and they’re very hook-oriented because that’s what I grew up listening to.”
He sings the classic riffs to The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up,” scanning my face for the instant recognition he knows is coming. “You don’t need 400 notes to make something catchy,” he says. “It can be three or four notes.”
But—and this is relatively new—what is considered “catchy” by radio standards can now include the kind of instrumentation favored by a group like Yonder Mountain String Band. Indeed, it’s a ripe time for various forms of traditional American string music, thanks in part to a group from England—Mumford & Sons—who play a bastardized version of Americana (and were the subject of a Relix cover story late last year). It sounds great but it doesn’t sound much like Yonder. And yet, ever since Mumford & Sons exploded on the charts, it’s all anyone wants to talk to the Yonder guys about.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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