Yonder Mountain String Band’s triumphant return to Bozeman

by Nick Oldham

Despite what their name implies, Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB) plays much more than your average string music. While their traditional lineup of banjo, mandolin, guitar and upright bass gives off a bluegrass vibe, their music is truly genre-defying: one minute you’re swaying like a ragdoll to a spacey jam and then out of the blue you’re headbanging to metal-grass so hard you might have a mental breakdown.

“It’s not strictly bluegrass in the traditional sense and it’s not rock’n’roll by that formal definition either,” banjo player Dave Johnston explained. “I don’t know, it’s Yonder Mountain String Band Music!”

They’ve crafted a complicated sound that’s as unique as a fingerprint — you’d never think four-string instruments could produce such a full sound. With all four members sharing in songwriting and vocal responsibilities, Yonder is able to explore darkness and light and everything in between through their music.

“We’re at the point where we can try anything, whether it’s a genre, a cover of a certain song or a style of music we’ve never done,” Yonder’s veteran guitarist Adam Aijala said.

The band is running on all eight cylinders these days and touring as hard as ever. Although Johnston insists they aren’t the partiers they used to be, it’s hard to imagine them playing such rockin’ shows and not raging until the dawn’s early light.

“We were all young kids when we started and now a lot of us have young kids of our own,” Aijala explained, joking that “some of the wild stuff you’ll have to read in our book years later.”

The band met in Colorado in the mid-90s and has since played over 1,500 shows together, developing a loyal fanbase known as the Kinfolk. They have also founded two of their own annual  gatherings, the Harvest Music Festival and Northwest String Summit, which have been incredibly successful.

YMSB released their first studio album, “Elevation”, in 1999 and although their discography boasts only five official studio albums, live shows truly tell Yonder’s story. Aijala summarized their shows by saying, “We play bluegrass instruments, but we’re plugged in and we play fast and loud.” They are dedicated to recording as many of these shows as possible and have even developed a website dedicated to sharing them, yondermountainlive.com.

Yonder’s latest studio album, “The Show,” was released in 2009 and is undoubtedly their most progressive work to date. They explore new horizons with a more contemporary sound — with the addition of drums to several tracks you can’t help but pull your hands out of your pockets and dance. Currently, a new album is in the works and we may get a sneak preview of some fresh songs sprinkled in amongst the classics and wild covers they are known for.

YMSB and Montana just work together: Their music reminds you of the good ol’ days, the wild west and outlaws on the run. Montana has certainly progressed, but the relics of its past still give off  “a good, hearty Northern vibe,” according to Johnston, and that should give all Montanans some peace of mind.

Yonder first played in Bozeman on Nov. 2, 1999, when they visited the KGLT studio on campus for a 12-song set before playing at the Zebra Cocktail Lounge. They returned in 2000 to play the Cat’s Paw twice, and their Oct. 24 show is available in album form as “A Decade of Yonder Live: Vol. 3.”

It’s been six years since these immensely popular string-pluckers last played our little town, but they can still recall how the Emerson Cultural Center — which they fondly dubbed the “Emerson Sub-Cultural Center” during their 2007 show — “kind of looks like a school.”  More recently, they stopped in Billings and Missoula during their 2011 spring tour, yet for diehard fans that feels like an eternity ago.

Now, the dreams of fans are finally coming to fruition because Yonder has amped up their Montana run this time around. They are set to play four shows traversing the steep grade and sharp curves of I-90 with stops in Billings, Bozeman and a two-night stand in Missoula.

We can’t say for certain what the night brings, but even if you go to the concert with no expectations, you’re sure to experience good music, a good sense of community and a damn good party. At the end of the day, what more could you ask for from a night out?

Yonder will perform at the Emerson with support from The Deadly Gentlemen on Thursday March 21. Tickets are going fast, but can still be purchased online here or downtown at Cactus Records.