Jammin’ Through the Years: A Night with Yonder Mountain String Band

Twenty years ago, the Yonder Mountain String Band ascertained its position as the untraditional black sheep act of the national bluegrass festival circuit. Five studio albums and more than 2,000 live shows later, the excitable, wide-eyed band has sustained its act with jubilant experiment and lighthearted, ad-libbed craft.

In a time when many bands arrive loudly and then exit quickly or endlessly morph or fragment, the secret to the success of the Yonder Mountain String Band is perhaps actually no secret at all.

“I think that people still like us to explore in the jams,” said Adam Aijala, guitarist of Yonder Mountain String Band. “I think that even our jamming is getting more cohesive. It’s not planned and it has no definition, and it’s always going its own places. We just don’t know what it’s going to do. Maybe it’s something we’ve never played before, and if I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll start something that none of us has ever heard. It might be a new lick, or chord structure, and then another (band member) will follow, and then another one of us will follow after that, and then make a switch. All of the time there is no clear definition as to where it’s going to go.”

Photo Gallery: Yonder Mountain String Band & The Lil Smokies at The Wilma 3/18/17

The progressive, Colorado-based bluegrass group is composed of three original members, Dave Johnston, Ben Kaufmann, Adam Aijala, in addition to fiddler Allie Kral, and mandolinist Jacob Joliff, who were added to the ensemble in 2014. The band is still all about a future of collective effort and collective joy, and Aijala said that his Yonder Mountain bandmates are bound together not only in the vibrant spirit of unpretentious grooves but by a familial sense of interpersonal connectedness.

“Dave, Ben, and I have been playing together, come this July, 20 years, and they are like brothers. We’ve been through everything. I was close to 25 when we met, and they were even younger. My whole life has been with those guys, and we care about each other and we can still make each other laugh. Dave lives in Boulder, and we are about two miles apart from each other.”

“Dave is a great songwriter,” added Aijala, “and I hold him in high regard. He’s got this regiment about writing, where he is writing daily or when he hears someone say something, he puts it down in a book or notepad.”

Aijala said that the additional presence of Jacob and Allie continues to add an invigorating level of ingenuity to the band.

“I think they both provide us with a youthful vibe and both of them contribute to us still feeling fresh. We just did a tour of five weeks and Allie is 5 months pregnant and she still killed it. At the end of our coming tour she will be 8 months pregnant.”

Aijala, 44, said that the Yonder Mountain String Band has stuck around long enough to now be blessed with a multi-generational audience presence.

“The parents who were originally bringing their kids, well, those little kids are now in college, and in their ‘20s, and that’s bizarre.  We play college towns so we get a fresh crew of people and it’s a pretty diverse crowd, maybe something equated on a smaller sale to The Grateful Dead. I’ve had several people come up to me and say, ‘hey, this is my wife, who I first met at a Yonder show.’ It’s a cool community – and we are into it.”

Event Page: Yonder Mountain String Band at The Wilma 3/10/18

Yonder’s newest release, “Love. Ain’t Love,” is a collaborative blending culled from the bandmember’s individual songs, bristling with familiar, free-flowing energy, a provocative-sounding companion piece to the band’s earlier works. Still, Aijala said that this record reflects the group’s most polished and “effective” piece of studio work.

“The songs are less quote-unquote bluegrass, rhythmically speaking. When we write a song it’s not automatically a bluegrass rhythm, sometimes it’s a good jammer, sometimes it’s about the harmony, sometime everyone solos, and sometimes it’s a three-and-a-half minute song.  Sonically speaking, it’s our best, and the mixing sounds better to me than “Black Sheep (2015),” the tone of some of the instruments sounds better. We are stil

l evolving and songs are still being written and we are still drawing imagination and coming up with exciting stuff.”

Yonder Mountain String Band is a recognizable and relaxed energy boost to Missoulians; the band has made the city of Missoula a regular tour stop almost since its inception.

“The renovations at the Wilma are awesome,” said Aijala, “and to me it’s reminiscent a bit of the Boulder Theatre. I like the sound there, and Missoula is a place so similar to Boulder, a university town that is close to the Rockies, with similar minds and a crossover of likeminded people.”

Aijala said that a night with Yonder Mountain String Band is a night of adoring imperfection, ambitious mystery, and extemporized presence. The band’s purpose is to restore our faith in music as a spur-of-the-moment, hypnotic art form.

“Our fans understand that we are not about perfection, but we are about being lighthearted and energetic and about how it all translates. We are not about playing the same set as good as we can, because that same set would be perfect. Fans are coming for the energy and they enjoy not knowing what we are going to play. You can come see the show and turn everything off and enjoy and live in the moment and nothing else. You come to not think about the real world or to escape, just like a book or a movie or a TV show.

“When I was growing up,” concluded Aijala, “I remember hearing “Strawberry Fields Forever” and getting goose bumps on my arms as a kid – and that’s why we do what we do.”

-Written by Brian D’Ambrosio