Yonder Mountain String Band Tunes in on Tahoe

Josh Sweigert
Yonder Mountain String Band plays at 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 20, in the MontBleu Theatre.

A few guys from Colorado are passing through on a late-winter trip, hoping to hit the slopes after wrapping up some business in town. But don’t roll your eyes or grumble about bigwigs hogging the late-season Sierra snow. Instead, hurry now and grab your tickets for Yonder Mountain String Band, playing Wednesday, April 20, at MontBleu Resort Casino and Spa.

Offering an upbeat blend of newgrass and jam band styles, Yonder Mountain String Band features Jeff Austin on mandolin, Dave Johnston on banjo, Adam Aijala on guitar and Ben Kauffmann on bass, with all four contributing vocals.

The group formed in 1998. Johnston and Austin had known each other in Illinois, and met Aijala and Kauffmann in Nederland, Colo.

“It was good timing, very serendipitous,” Aijala said. “We’re all within two years of each other, and none of us had any careers or commitments. It was very simple.”

Yonder Mountain quickly established a rocking reputation on the Nederland music circuit.

“We were very fortunate to be playing what we were playing at the time,” Kauffmann said. “Most of our friends that we went to for advice were in established rock or jam bands, they said go to this bar or that club. We were just psyched that there was an audience. With the help of sound engineers, we wound up figuring out that we could play as loud as most rock bands, and we just kept pursuing it from there.”

Aijala felt something special in the band from the beginning.

“There was really no one that I know of that was in that jam band scene at the time that didn’t have drums,” he said. “Because no one else was doing that, I had a lot more confidence that we could pull this off. I knew that at some point we’d at least be able to pay our bills.”

With a winning formula in hand, Yonder Mountain String Band gradually developed a national following. The group played at the 2008 Democratic National Convention at Invesco Field in Denver, opening for presidential nominee Barack Obama’s acceptance speech.

“I was excited to be a part of what felt like a moment in history,” Kauffmann said. “It was like a circus, ‘Oh look, there’s Oprah! There’s Al Sharpton!'”

For its fourth studio album, “The Show,” the group again secured the services of Tom Rothrock. A highly regarded producer whose past work includes Beck and the Foo Fighters, Rothrock also produced the group’s third album, “Yonder Mountain String Band.”

“Working with Tom really opened our eyes,” Aijala said. “You’re in the studio with all these sounds and effects at your fingertips. Why not play around, instead of just sticking to the set-up that we use live?”

“I didn’t even play my upright bass on those two albums,” Kaufmann said. “I played either my super-secret studio bass, or my live bass. We played around with doubling bass lines with a three-quarter bass through a Fender electric amp. That was the kind of experimenting that Tom led us to. It’s a happy accident. You have to try all this stuff until something leaps out at you.”

Expect a captivating performance from these guys. After playing live music for more than a decade, their experience and know-how are beyond question.

“You gotta show up on time, you gotta play in tune, you gotta sing in tune,” Kauffmann said. “Apart from that, the real trick is to find the honesty in what you’re trying to express. Express something authentically, unless you’re an actor, unless you’re gonna play a role on stage. OK then, play that role.”

“Learn electric,”Aijala chimed. “Bluegrass don’t pay s—.”

What does Yonder Mountain envision on the horizon? Plenty, according to Aijala: “We’ve got a lot of new material. we have six for sure, seven originals. Hopefully, we’ll be able to pull off a new record by the end of the summer or the fall. We’re looking toward traveling internationally more. We’ve been places overseas, but we want to really establish ourselves. Everything feels kind of new and fresh, a lot of changes happening. The band is getting along really well, which is good.”

“Shut up, Adam,” Kauffmann deadpanned.

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