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Yonder Mountain String band shows its hand

By John Lupton, July 2003

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Although O'Brien produced the band's previous studio effort "Town By Town," it's Van Meter's hand that sets the tone and leads to the end result.

A long-time veteran of California bands, most notably the Good Ol' Persons (with Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick), Van Meter moved to Colorado a few years ago and began adding producer credits to her resume, demonstrating the versatility to get the best out of not only young, traditionally-minded bands like Open Road, but also bands that came to bluegrass from an entirely different direction like, well, Yonder Mountain.

Austin acknowledges that while they paid close attention to the other Colorado bands they were hearing (Front Range, Bluegrass Patriots and O'Brien's own Hot Rize being the best-known) that were firmly rooted in bluegrass history and tradition, they didn't exactly set out to recreate the Monroe and Stanley sounds.

'"We were heavily influenced by (Hot Rize, Front Range, et al), and as heavily influenced as we were by them, we were equally as heavily influenced by Frank Zappa...and Bob Dylan and The (Grateful) Dead."

What led to the formation of Yonder Mountain was their common desire to combine the bluegrass they had come to love and excel at with the music they were most comfortable and familiar with in a way that would be completely unique, appealing to an eclectic fan base of their generational peers (Austin notes his own age as 29, while the oldest band member turns 30 this year), yet still attract and hold the attention of the bluegrass purists.

"When we first set out, our main goal was, we wanted to sound like something different. We knew there were people who could play straight-up traditional music way better than we could ever hope to, and that's what they should be doing, that helps the music scene grow. Then, when we got out to Colorado, and when Yonder Mountain got together, the people we were hanging out with were all about being eclectic in their music making, the guys from Leftover Salmon, the guys from the band called the Dukes of Zydeco, this great Zydeco band out here. I'm not even really sure where it happened, I just think we didn't want to sound like anybody else, but we took our influences. We knew we didn't want to be a straight-up traditional band. We do play straight-up, traditional tunes, a great number of them during our show. But the energy we play with, that's what gives it the different kind of twist."

They're still young enough that touring - and lots of it - is still fun, still an adventure, and it's still a rewarding challenge to maintain that high energy level night after night, no matter how long and hard the trip from the previous night's gig was. As he talks between early June shows in their Colorado stomping grounds, Austin seems excited while saying that it only gets more hectic from here on.

"It's the beginning of our summer tour. We're done Sept. 29th. Really, between now and then we have, probably, 15 or 16 days off, we're just go, go, go."

Before October brings a chance to take a few more deep breaths, the road will lead from Colorado up to Oregon, over the water to Ireland, France and Britain, back across to the Blue Ridge, Texas, Georgia and the Winfield, Kansas festival before it all ends, at least for this go-round.

For a recorded sampler of the sort of live, arena-rock energy that a Yonder Mountain show strives to attain, either of their live "Mountain Tracks" discs will do. "Volume 2", for example, which was recorded during the fall of 2001 in Colorado and Oregon, includes spirited versions of traditional fare like "Raleigh And Spencer" along with salutes to John Hartford ("Two Hits And The Joint Turned Brown"), Waylon Jennings ("Good Hearted Woman") and the Stones ("No Expectations"), capped off by a 26-minute medley/reprise of tunes by Austin, "Peace Of Mind" and "Follow Me Down To The Riverside."

No doubt, they like to push the envelope, at least when it comes to bluegrass, but they do it on a solid foundation of vocal and instrumental musicianship. Aijala, in particular, is a flatpicker with the ability to make the listener sit up and notice, yet not get so flashy that it overpowers or distracts from the song.

In the end, Austin agrees, it's the band as a whole, an ensemble, and not as individuals, that has made Yonder Mountain a success over the course of their relatively short existence. It helps, of course, that they respect and enjoy each other's friendship as much as musical ability. He pauses a moment and laughs.

"We're also the 'TV Generation', you know, we can't go 10 minutes without getting bored and flipping the channel, so the way that we kind of approached our music is almost with that mentality, you know, keep it moving, keep it changing, keep different things happening and hopefully you'll capture people's attention. Like I said, if we played straight-up, traditional stuff, I'd go see Open Road before I'd come see us because they're a great band, and I love what they do when they play that...But the main goal, from day one, was to do something completely different, while not ignoring any of our influences, no matter how far from bluegrass they may come."

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