THERE'S A HALF MOON RISIN'

It has been only 24 hours since the Yonder Mountain String Band has been home, but for this bunch of hard-working musicians there is no rest for the wicked. Their day-and-a-half off only provides for a brief visit with friends, which is incidentally cut short given that their band meeting has run over the allotted time. Topics on the elongated agenda include normal up-and-coming band discussions—touring, business matters, and above all, the purchase of new sound equipment.

"I think it is gonna make the biggest difference, I mean it is night and day," says bassist Ben Kauffman. He is referring with anticipation to the new sound equipment, which has just undergone their acoustic assault at a rehearsal space in a local Boulder lounge. "Especially considering the lineup of the band and how many instrument microphones are happening onstage. I find that it is such a challenge to get acoustic tone at the volumes that we are playing at now in these bigger rooms with audiences that are not that quiet."

Kauffman continues with thoughtful deliberation in regards to the larger venues and bigger crowds that are witnessing the discernible growth of this two year-old Nederland, CO band and how it will affect their sound. "I anticipate that we will always have at the foundation of the whole thing the acoustic instruments sounding like the acoustic instruments. The nature of the beast is that you do have to plug in but I think that with thought and mostly money you can get gear that can help you keep that authenticity of acoustic sound."

However, YMSB’s mandolin player Jeff Austin is quick to point out that the late Jerry Garcia said, "If it is coming out of speakers, it is electric."

Kauffman reiterates, "We are an acoustic band. If the power went out you could still hear the music."

This reasoning holds more truth than technicality. Commanding absolute silence from audiences, YMSB’s sets sometimes finale front of stage, minus all microphones, pick-ups, and speakers. Compelling as this may be, the really beauty lies in the four musicians - Austin, Kauffman, guitarist Adam Aijala, and banjoist Dave Johnston - quieting a late night dancing and drinking crowd by means of strictly four instruments.

Rapidly approaching their two-year anniversary with more speed than the Orange Blossom Special, YMSB’s short history traces back to many a fine pick at Nederland’s old Verve. It was here that Austin, along with former musical colleague and Illinois resident Johnston, met up with Kauffman and Aijala. They would debut this current collective as openers for fellow Nederland musicians Runaway Truck Ramp at the Fox Theatre two years ago this December.

A dedication to touring, a passion for picking, and their uniquely concocted bluegrass sound provided a catalyst for the Yonder Mountain String Band as they grew out of the small bars into the larger venues. Witness to their accelerated growth will be the historic Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco this February as they will be headlining this 1300 seat venue. It was less than a year ago they were playing in the smaller confines of the 300 person capacity of the cross town Club Cocodrie.

And as Kauffman sits with a tall and defining posture, similar to that of his instrument, he listens as Austin describes the switch from barroom to concert hall. "The really challenging part of this part of the bands growth is in some cities we are moving into those halls and other cities we are playing these two hundred seat bars. That is the hardest, because after two nights of getting really milky goodness, you don’t want to go back. It’s finding the balance and learning how to be patient with it."

With this transition from barrooms to concert halls, YMSB is slowly building a musical legacy that is founded in bluegrass—high lonesome harmonies and fast-paced picking—and twisted with extended jams that redefine the quick solos and brevity of most traditional bluegrass songs.

And Austin exhibits his appreciation for similar genre-benders Acoustic Syndicate as he peaks out from beneath his McMurry Farms ball cap. He is describing a guest appearance from mandolin master and bluegrass extraordinarie David Grisman at a recent YMSB show in Petaluma, California at the Mystic Theater.

"It was the most religious thing I have ever been through."

This epochal musical event transpired through an interest from Grisman’s manager who as Austin states "befriended us with the sense that he is really genuinely interested in our best interest and helping us out."

The excitement in Austin’s voice heightens throughout the spiritual description. "It was during the set break and all of the sudden Rob’s [Grisman’s manager] phone rang and I see him pick up the phone and he is going 'Yeah, you are fine. Just come in the back.' He hangs up the phone and gives me this look like 'Yeah, he’s here.'"

He continues with the gaiety of a child on Christmas morning. "At that point I had to pee really bad. I go into the bathroom, I have my mandolin on, I am washing my hands, and I am thinking, 'OK, this is the biggest hero of my world.' I finish washing my hands - the bathroom door leads right into the band room - and as soon as I kill the water I hear, 'Hi, I’m David, nice to meet you. Ben? Nice to meet you. Adam? David, nice to meet you. Dave? David, nice to meet you.' So I open the door and he is standing right there. He turns and looks at me and sees the mandolin and goes, 'Oh, nice to meet you.'

"I was nervous for about 45 seconds and then when he put his mandolin on the counter after being in the room for about a minute, whipped it out, tuned it up and said 'Let’s pick,' I realized he is no different than any of us. He is a picker. He is after it. He wants it. It is all he has ever wanted to do and it was like being at a festival."

Grisman sat in on five tunes in their second set—two traditional songs, two YMSB originals, and one Grisman original.

Kauffman concurs. "It tends to lend a bit of legitimacy to this here Yonder Mountain thing. It seems like he didn’t have too bad of a time."

Austin adds this show and Grisman’s reaction provides an amount of certitude that YMSB is creating a response. "Just hearing after the show from David’s manager saying, '[Grisman] really wanted to say that he really likes you guys and he had a great time playing with you guys.' To hear that from somebody that everybody in the band has revered for so long, since we started to listen to this music. It moves you to tears. You cannot help it. It gives you confidence that you are doing the work. No matter what else might come up, your biggest hero felt your energy."

This past summer’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival also heralded a memorable experience for Kauffman. "We played Telluride last summer. It was the highest... It was the most... I can’t describe the feeling to you." He stalls as he recollects the feelings from this monumental occasion.

"We’re four guys up onstage and there are 9,000 people out in front of you. You don’t know if they are gonna like it or not. You don’t know what they are gonna think. And at the end when everybody is standing and cheering—to hear that roar—it fills you with too much energy you know what to do with and it jacks you up in a very weird way."

YMSB has been moving even the veteran listeners of traditional bluegrass music. Austin details another anecdote, which has supplied him with much inspiration. "I was walking around on Sunday at this past year’s Rockygrass Festival and I saw this guy at a distance and he looked at me. He was coming towards me at an 80-year-old’s pace and he gave me this look like 'Come here.'"

Austin continues with much gratitude as the story unfolds. "I went over to him and he said, 'I really just have to shake your hand. I am 80-years-old and have been a fan since the music first started coming out. I remember listening to the Monroe Brothers and all these bands when I was young and loving it through all these years. I gotta tell you that I haven’t seen energy in bluegrass music like you guys since I saw Flatt and Scruggs. I haven’t seen people play with such a love for this music in 20, 30 years.' He looked at me and gave me that look like a grandfather would give you."

And in a slow, raspy grandfather voice Austin ends, "'You guys got it. You stick in there and keep playing this.' What do you say to that? You say 'thank you,' walk away and absorb it."

While the Yonder Mountain String Band has been creating waves on the traditional side of the bluegrass pool, especially with this past January’s debut studio release, Elevation, the assorted set lists and rousing jams of the live shows have created a thirst at the opposite end which draws travelers and tapers to a majority of their concerts.

This dedication, unusual for such a young band, has provided much inspiration to Austin, who admits the constant touring can wear him down. "When I am down I jump on our website and I read what people have to say about us and it really fuels the fire."

Kauffman leans forward to explain what this growth means to him. "I have this analogy I keep using. You never see real growth if you are living with it day to day but lets say you have a niece or nephew and you don’t see that kid for three years and you come back and you go, 'Damn, that kid has grown.'

"I think we are making tremendous strides and I think there is something special about this band and the timing with which we have entered into the bluegrass world, the audiences we have been able to reach. I don’t know how to explain it, but it is certainly something that is happening." He continues with a certain look of astonishment. "It seems to me that all these traditionally minded musicians—people who have very established ideas of what they do and do it their way—actually like what we do and don’t think we are ruining something that they have worked really hard to elevate to a certain status is amazing."

"We are not masters, we are just kids," Kauffman humbly states. "We’re learning. We have been doing this for two years and all these people are supporting us which is unbelievable."

Jonathan Stumpf
JamBase Colorado Correspondent
Go See Live Music!

The Yonder Mountain String Band is playing on New Years Eve at The Fox Theatre in Boulder, CO. Buy tickets now!

  • YMSB's Upcoming Tour Dates
  • YMSB's Official Website
  • [Published on: 12/19/00]

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