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Yonder Fills the Void 

New-grass quartet finds success on jam band circuit

With Widespread Panic on hiatus and Phish calling it quits, jam band fans have been left wandering aimlessly through the proverbial pre-show parking lot. Many fans have finally found a new direction, taking a grassy turn toward bands like The Stringcheese Incident, Railroad Earth and New Monsoon.

Yonder Mountain String Band is another group that has stepped up to fill that void. "Where we started out was in a jam band circuit and jam band festivals and stuff like that," Yonder banjoist Dave Johnston said. "We could get a lot of work there and we really enjoyed playing for that type of audience. So, I guess you could say that that was like a target audience for us, but not really -- we just wanted to play."

Harnessing the best aspects of bluegrass, Americana, roots, rock and reggae, Yonder Mountain String Band explores new frontiers, creating a genre all their own. The group, composed of Johnston, mandolin player Jeff Austin, guitarist Adam Aijala and upright bass player Ben Kaufmann, came together in 1998 in Nederland, CO, just outside of Denver. From the coffee house circuit to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in only three years, the acoustic quartet's humble success story has created a much-needed niche on the jam band circuit.

I caught up with Dave in Burlington, VT, between shows on their Fall 2004 Tour. When I asked him to describe their sound, Dave explained why Yonder can't be pigeonholed in any one category. "I'd have to pull a Lemmy from Motorhead. When people asked them what their music was he just said it was Motorhead music. So we're like Motorhead bluegrass," he laughed, "You know what I mean, we're like Yonder Mountain String Band music."

Amidst their many influences, Yonder's vibe is undeniably based in bluegrass. Dave and Jeff grew up in Illinois while Adam and Ben hail from Massachusetts. So how were these guys ever introduced to bluegrass music? "We all came to bluegrass through different channels," Dave says. "I didn't really even know what it was until I was in college and I turned on the college radio station one Tuesday evening and I heard that and I thought it was just the best thing ever -- and that kind of led me to figure out who [Lester] Flatt, [Earl] Scruggs and all those folks were."

Now in their mid-20s, it didn't take long for these guys to get a handle on bluegrass and weave it together with their other influences. Dave continues, "We're very respectful and very impressed with bluegrass as it is and as it was, but our influences don't really permit us to just do strictly bluegrass-type stuff. Definitely a hard-core traditional bluegrass fan would never call us bluegrass."

YMSB has covered songs from non-bluegrass greats including Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Ozzy Osbourne, adding their signature acoustic spin to rock & roll classics like Ozzy's "Crazy Train." In addition to reaching their so-called "target audience," the older, traditional bluegrass fans have also flocked to Yonder's new sound, generating quite an eclectic fan base.

Their current tour coincides with last month's release of Mountain Tracks: Vol. 3. Their first live double album documents the best moments of last year's Kinfolk Celebration in Lyons, CO. Highlighting some of Yonder's best original tunes along with classic Americana covers such as Willie Nelson's "Bloody Mary Morning," the album truly captures the unpredictable nature of their shows.

Like any artist, Dave seems more than pleased with the group's success but recognizes that there's room to grow with potentially greater things lying ahead.

"We just want to keep evolving," he says. "We just want to become better writers and better performers -- that's pretty much our main goal, you know? We have really been enjoying the impact we're having now and we just want to continue that and keep that vibe cool."

Yonder Mountain String Band plays with moe. at 8pm, Saturday at the Grady Cole Center. Tickets are $22.50 for the General Admission show.

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