Yonder Mountain String Band excited about Red Rocks show, new album

Yonder Mountain String Band, with its new, five-piece lineup, is scheduled to play Red Rocks on Friday, Aug. 21. (JP Cutler Media / Courtesy photo)
Yonder Mountain String Band, with its new, five-piece lineup, is scheduled to play Red Rocks on Friday, Aug. 21. (JP Cutler Media / Courtesy photo)

By Quentin Young

About 40 minutes before Yonder Mountain String Band took the stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June, the band made a snap decision to scrap the setlist they had written. They had planned to throw in a number of songs from the old days of their original, quartet lineup. But at the last minute they decided to go with the confidence they had in their new album, Black Sheep, which they released that very day.

“We played the record start to finish,” bassist Ben Kaufmann said during an interview this week.

Black Sheep is the band’s first studio album in six years and their first with new members Jake Joliff on mandolin and Allie Kral on fiddle. Joliff and Kral joined Yonder Mountain after the departure of founding member and de facto frontman Jeff Austin, who played mandolin. They started as provisional hires but have been on an extensive tour with Yonder Mountain and have secured permanent places.

As the quintet stepped in front of the Telluride crowd, the band’s regeneration was fully realized. In 17 years of playing some of the country’s most high-profile venues with Yonder Mountain, Kaufmann never before knew such a sense of achievement, he said.

“I’ve been waiting that long to have the experience I felt on that stage,” Kaufmann said. “It felt like a command performance.”

But the best could be yet to come.

Yonder Mountain String Band is set to headline Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Friday, Aug. 21, and, because everything about playing that storied venue is monumental and because the band has a hometown connection to Red Rocks, Kaufmann believes the show could be a climax for Yonder — like Telluride, only bigger.

“I’m particularly excited for Red Rocks this year,” he said. “There’s a bit of energy building inside of me.”

He believes it could be the kind of set where that band can plant a flag on the stage and declare, “That’s Yonder Mountain’s Red Rocks right there,” he said.

Yonder’s current lineup — which includes founding members Adam Aijala on guitar and Dave Johnston on banjo — is the first to feature the traditional bluegrass arrangement of guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and bass. But the band continues to push stylistic boundaries in Black Sheep, which, aside from a spirited cover of the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen In Love,” features all original songs. (Watch videos of several of the new tunes.)

One of the album’s strengths is Joliff’s fretboard fireworks. Austin had charisma, but Joliff has a virtuosity that sometimes steals the show. “Drawing a Melody” showcases his chops with face-melting convincingness.

Kaufmann said that Joliff, formerly of Joy Kills Sorrow, quickly proved himself with his instrumental skills and ability to remain a “gentleman” in the middle of a grueling tour.

“I doubt highly if we searched the world over we’d find a better mandolin player than Jake,” Kaufmann said. “We’ve played with a lot great mandolin players. Jake’s just different.”

He offered similar praise for Kral, who came from the band Cornmeal. Yonder Mountain benefits from the addition of a female voice, and she has a natural way of connecting with members of the audience, Kaufmann said.

“It’s one of those things — she just has this X factor,” Kaufmann said, concluding of Yonder Mountain 2.0, “We feel like now we have more of a complete energy.”

The final sign that Joliff and Kral were a good match for the band came with a comment from Yonder Mountain’s longtime house sound engineer, Ben Hines.

“He came up to us after some show and said, ‘OK, you’re done looking,’ ” Kaufmann said. “It was sort of like confirmation of what we all were thinking.”

The band is planning a “rehearsal set” at 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 20, at Under the Sun Eatery & Taphouse, at 627 S. Broadway in Boulder. Check the band’s website, yondermountain.com/news, for the latest on tickets for that show, which wasn’t announced on the venue website as of Wednesday.

Then it’s on to Red Rocks.

“Something feels special about this one,” Kaufmann said. “It’s nice to have that feeling, feeling that kind of excitement. I feel young. There’s something thrilling about it.”

Quentin Young: twitter.com/qpyoungnews

If you go

What: Yonder Mountain String Band, with Greensky Bluegrass and Fruition

When: 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21

Where: Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 W. Alameda Parkway, Morrison

Tickets: $38.95-$50

Info: redrocksonline.com

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