After having to cancel last February's scheduled date at the Music Farm due to a family illness, the Yonder Mountain String Band are back for their annual winter appearance. With a solid new album in hand (The Show) and an ever-growing reputation as progressive bluegrass juggernauts, it's unlikely their fan base will hold it against them.
"It sucks to miss places that you only hit once a year, because you don't want to lose that thing you've got going in each town," says guitarist Adam Aijala, on the phone last week while on a tour stop in Fayetteville, Ark. "But, you know, you move forward, right?"
That's exactly what the band does on The Show, released in August. The 13-track collection takes both a big step ahead while simultaneously revisiting the epic acoustic buildups and breakdowns that put the quartet on the radar a decade ago.
"We evolve, but we don't want to change," says Aijala. "We've created a niche in an underground sort of scene that I'm thrilled with."
The Show's diversity might confuse veteran and new listeners alike. The all-acoustic, fast-picking opener, "Out of the Blue," is followed by "Complicated," a drum-heavy tune that led some fans to sarcastically throw out Rascal Flatts comparisons. But if "Complicated" actually made it onto FM radio, Aijala's silky smooth flat-picking solo might inspire the same listener to call the DJ and request it again.
With its hints of pop, however, moments on The Show might lead one to believe the band did have terrestrial radio in mind.
"From a business point of view, I think the band wanted to give that a whirl, but I'm more of a mind to just keep doing what we're doing and see what stuff comes our way," says Aijala.
Both The Show and their 2006 self-titled release were produced by Tom Rothrock, known for his work with Beck, The Foo Fighters, and The Toadies.
"Tom's from a rock background. We sent him a bunch of bluegrass music and told him what to check out before we recorded the self-titled disc," says Aijala. "So the approach this time was a 'starting out where we left off' kind of mentality. All the songs that we recorded with drums are not bluegrass songs at all. They're not the one-and-five on the bass, boom-shuck on the guitar rhythms. We're not huge fans of the drums with a bluegrass beat, the train beat. It works sometimes, but it sounds a little hokey."
While the studio allows Yonder to experiment with instrumentation, the explorations on stage on banjo, upright bass, guitar, and mandolin are in capable hands. Aijala says that bluegrass tracks off The Show like "Honestly" and "In the Seam" have enjoyed ever-changing renditions on tour this year. The same goes for the more docile "Isolate."
"The slower, more bouncy rock beat rhythms that we have, they're good to rest the hands between the fast songs," laughs Aijala.
The story behind the new song "Dreams" paints a clear picture of where Yonder stands as a band moving forward in 2010. Ben Kaufman, the bassist, suggested they add a song in a minor key near the end of their recording sessions, so the foursome broke off alone for an hour to write verses around the "All your dreams come true" chorus. The result is four unique pieces of poetry, held together by a common spirit and unifying musical theme.
"Band morale is pretty high, and everyone's in a good head space," says Aijala. "I obviously enjoy being on the road with these guys when everyone is in that place."