Article and photos by Matt Wickstrom
Interview assisted by Taylor Hubbard
Yonder Mountain String Band returned to Lexington on Wednesday night, performing their signature jam-infused bluegrass in front of a jubilant crowd of patrons at the historic Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.
The trip was the first to the Commonwealth since last October when the quintet performed in Louisville at Headliners Music Hall. The group last played in Lexington in February 2015 at the Kentucky Theatre.
Founded in 1998, Yonder held a steady lineup for several years before the departure of frontman and mandolinist Jeff Austin to pursue a solo career in the spring of 2014. Soon thereafter, it began performing tour dates with violinist Allie Kral, formerly of Chicago jamgrass band Cornmeal, and mandolinist Jacob Jolliff, formerly of the New England-based group Joy Kills Sorrow.
After several months of touring with Kral and Jolliff as special guests, bassist Ben Kaufmann, banjoist Dave Johnston and guitarist Adam Aijala welcomed the two as full-time members of Yonder in May 2015, coinciding with their latest album release, “Black Sheep,” last June.
“It was important for us to find out what was in the heart of the people whom we asked to play with us,” Kaufmann said. “What are they like hanging out on the bus and what kind of energy will they contribute to the band other than just the notes of the thing.”
Yonder Mountain String Band has always performed a wide range of covers along with its extensive library of 188 original tunes and counting.
Kral gave performances of “Love Before You Can’t” and a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” who celebrated her 70th birthday on Tuesday. The group also paid homage to Glenn Frey, guitarist for legendary rock band the Eagles with a cover of 1976’s “Life in the Fast Lane,” along with their own version of Del McCoury’s “All Aboard.”
In recent months, Yonder Mountain String Band has performed several theme-centric nights. This past Halloween in Columbus, Ohio, the group re-invented itself as Yonder Mountain Punk Band, wearing ripped denim clothing and tattoo sleeves while performing hits from Joan Jett, The Sex Pistols, The Descendants and other punk all-stars.
Then, on the band’s four night New Year’s run Dec. 30 through Jan. 2 in Boulder, Colorado, the band reflected back on the music of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s with special guests every night that included Dobro specialist Jerry Douglas and master mandolinist Sam Bush.
“Most of the theme nights were actually ideas from members of our crew,” Kaufmann said. “We learned 18 new songs for the New Year’s run, and oftentimes were rehearsing for upwards of three hours prior to our shows. It was like playing a show before a show.”
Before departing on its winter tour, Yonder Mountain String Band hopped into the studio to begin work on its next album, which will feature material written by Kral and Jolliff for the first time.
“Seeing what Allie and Jacob’s instincts are in terms of songwriting will be something we’re all very eager to see,” Kaufmann said. “Adam, Dave and I have are still writing music and have been since the original incarnation of Yonder, the structure of our writing remains the same, but the way we color it in is always changing.”
Yonder Mountain String Band continues its winter tour Thursday night in Indianapolis. The group is supported for the entirety of its winter tour by Colorado-based bluegrass band Trout Steak Revival, which runs through a Feb. 14 show in Nashville.
“It’s interesting to be a band that’s not even two years old, but also 18 years old,” Kaufmann said. “You have the experimentation that comes with youth mixing with the confidence that comes with age.”
A complete set list of Wednesday night’s show can be found below, along with pictures and audio of YMSB covering “Life in the Fastlane”, which is a free download on the band’s Soundcloud page.
Set One: Gilpin Swing, Landfall, Black Sheep, Annalee, Life in the Fastlane, All Aboard > Winds on Fire > All Aboard, Hole, On the Run > Sometimes I’ve Won > On the Run
Set Two: Drawing a Melody, I’d Like Off > Northern Song, Crooked Hitch, End is Not in Sight, Pockets, This Lonesome Heart, Around You, Love Before You Can’t, Angel > Robots > Angel, Bolton Stretch
Encore: Jolene, Troubled Mind