The Grass Is Greener

While stretching the boundaries of old-timey bluegrass, Yonder Mountain String Band has reached a peak.

Three years after they joined forces in Nederland, life is mighty good for the members of Yonder Mountain String Band. But bassist Ben Kaufmann swears that he and his mates can't take all the credit for their rapid rise in the jam-band universe.

"There's always been this sense of timing in all that we've done; we're always in the right place at the right time," he says. "We'll be playing some stupid gig in some stupid place, and then somebody comes up and says, 'Why don't you come and play at the Grand Ole Opry?'"

Serendipity does appear to have played a role in the band's career so far. For example, Kaufmann isn't joking about the way the band landed its most high-profile gig yet. Two months ago, YMSB was playing in a parking lot neighboring the new home of the Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, when, Kaufmann recalls, "the guy who books the Opry happened to be walking by. He heard maybe thirty seconds of a song and liked it."

The Yonder Mountain String Band is sittin' on top of the world.
The Yonder Mountain String Band is sittin' on top of the world.

Details

With Kinfolk Celebration
8 p.m. Thursday, September 27
$15, 303-443-3399

9 p.m. Friday, September 28, and Saturday, September 29
Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder
$14, 303-786-7030

Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder

One of the acts scheduled to take the Opry stage the following night had canceled its appearance, so the scout invited YMSB to fill the vacancy and perform during America's most famous country-music program. According to Kaufmann, the Opry crowd enjoyed his group's cameo so much that Yonder Mountain -- a band that has perfected the art of the sixty-minute acoustic number -- was invited back to perform a second tune later that same evening.

"The cool part was, we were standing on the side of the Opry stage while the Osbourne Brothers were playing 'Rocky Top,'" he says. "We had tears glistening in our eyes, thinking, 'My God, we just played on the same stage where Bobby Osbourne is singing the heck out of this tune.'"

That gig isn't the only proof of YMSB's increasing good fortune. In the past year, the band (which consists of Kaufmann, lead singer and mandolinist Jeff Austin, guitarist Adam Aijala and banjo player Dave Johnston) has played over 160 dates and headlined sold-out shows at some of America's best midsized theaters, including the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco; this summer the group produced and fronted its own music festival in Dexter, Oregon. The players have also performed with a number of new-grass heavies, including Sam Bush, David Grisman, Darol Anger, Kelly Joe Phelps and Colorado's prodigal picking son, Tim O'Brien.

YMSB's penchant for stretching out bluegrass numbers earned it the 2001 "New Groove of the Year" Jammy Award, an honor bestowed on the nation's best new act by the jambands.com Web site. And a trio of shows in Boulder this week are testament to the band's popularity in a town that's practically synonymous with the free-flowing, long-form genre. Yet Yonder Mountain's approach separates it from its peers in Colorado and around the United States: While fellow Colorado-based acts such as Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident use bluegrass as one of many launching pads into extended rock and jazz songs, YMSB does not. The men from over Yonder remain rooted in bluegrass and folk, using rock and jazz only as accents to their hippied Americana. They also eschew the use of effects and electronics to make their musical points, and their staunch drum-free status is a risky move in a genre that relies on deep, danceable grooves.

According to Kaufmann, YMSB counts on something far more organic to hold its audience.

"We get on stage, it's a given that we can't play tunes as precisely as any other bluegrass band. There's not a virtuoso in the band, and we've gotten by on playing faster than we should. But what we have is a sort of virtuoso energy. And Jeff is an incredible frontman and entertainer with great charisma and his finger on the pulse of the audience." Those gifts, notes Kaufmann, are bolstered by a fresh take on roots music: "We've come at bluegrass backwards. Bluegrass is the tree, and there's all kinds of things coming off this foundation."

The band's recorded output reflects that grafting of styles. Elevation, Yonder Mountain's debut, is a collection of Colorado-style bluegrass highlighted by tasty acoustic playing and Austin's clear, twang-free singing. The songs fall mostly in the three- to four-minute range and are split between traditional tunes and more contemporary-sounding cuts peppered with folk-jazz chord changes and melodies. The group's first live disc, Mountain Tracks: Volume 1, was released last April and builds on these merits. Recorded last year during a two-day stint at the Fox Theatre, it includes three standard-length, expertly played traditional cuts and three extended tracks, one a daunting eighteen minutes long. Such elongated offerings, however, display concise playing and smart segues; even at its jammiest moments, YMSB avoids the excessive noodling that mars much Dead-influenced music. The album also sports welcome hits of humor: Austin's "Keep On Going" morphs into a piece of the Peter Tosh anthem "Legalize It," much to the delight of the Fox audience. "The last thing we can afford to do is take ourselves too seriously," Kaufmann says.

The band does take its career seriously, however. Yonder Mountain's work ethic has played a key role in its rise, along with a selective touring itinerary that has put the players in front of the nation's improv-minded masses. The group's indie business approach -- patterned after the highly successful model of its friends and peers in the String Cheese Incident -- has also helped. YMSB now employs seven people as part of its management team in consort with Boulder's Partners in Music; Partners founder Casey Verbeck leads the effort. The team's duties include handling all music and merchandise sales, facilitating the group's tape-trading network and rallying the army of "kinfolk," fans who volunteer to promote YMSB shows around the country.

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