Adam Aijala says Yonder Mountain String Band has never been a group to plot out its career – or just about anything it does. To hear him tell it, there was no strategy to the path that has carried the group from do-it-yourself upstarts that self-released its early albums to a place where it is now one of the leading acts on the bluegrass/jam band scene. These guys couldn’t be calculated if they were math majors.
“That’s kind of the way we do it,” guitarist/singer Aijala said in a phone interview earlier this year. “It seems like from the very beginning, even our shows are like that. We don’t play the same set every night. We’re always kind of winging it in general. I’d like in the business sense to maybe not wing it as much, but as far as the artistic side, I like that element of it.”
Yonder Mountain String Band is set to perform at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, at Sky City. Doors open at 6 p.m. Oregon-based quintet Fruition will open the Riverwalk Revival Series show, which benefits The Savannah Riverkeeper. Tickets are $30 advance at fwbpro.com and $35 at the door.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that when Yonder Mountain String Band’s future was thrown into question in April 2014 – after mandolin player Jeff Austin left – there was no clear plan for how to move forward.
Now, more than two years later, Yonder Mountain has come out of that time of uncertainty smelling like a rose. Two new members have joined – mandolin player Jacob Jolliff and violinist Allie Kral – and the group is moving full speed ahead.
“The way it all played out was not planned at all. We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Aijala said, when asked about confronting the Austin-less future. “We had some people in mind other than the people we’re playing with. And the way it worked out, I think, I really hope they (Jolliff and Kral) stick around. I love playing with them. They’re having a blast, too. I always check in to make sure they’re still cool. They’re loving it. Maybe this will be something that goes on for awhile.”
Kral, in a case of excellent timing, crossed paths with Yonder Mountain just before the split with Austin.
“She sat in with us a couple of times over the years,” Aijala said. “And really, she sat in with us on that last tour with Jeff in April (2014) for like three different shows. She lives in Portland and it was when we were up in the Northwest. And we had a blast. And hanging out with her, I was like ‘This chick’s cool.’”
Jolliff had not met or jammed with the group. Instead, his name came up via Yonder Mountain’s former manager, DJ McLaughlin, who knew Jolliff was looking for a gig.
“He (McLaughlin) is like, ‘You should really call him,’” Aijala recalled. “He’s like ‘You know I know you, Adam. He’s a lot younger than you guys, but I know you’ll get along with him. He’s a standup dude. He comes from a solid background, a great musician. You should call him.’… And next thing you know, he (Jolliff) is on a plane out here and we’re in the studio working on the new record.”
That excellent record, Black Sheep, was released in June 2015. Fans will still recognize Black Sheep as the work of Yonder Mountain, even without Austin, who along with banjo player Dave Johnston, Aijala and bassist Ben Kaufmann, formed the group in 1998 in Nederland, Colo.
In fact, because Black Sheep is a largely acoustic album without drums, it in some ways is more similar to Yonder Mountain’s first couple of albums – which introduced the group’s tuneful and energetic blend of bluegrass-rooted music and rock improvisation – than the group’s 2006 self-titled album and The Show. The latter two albums added a notable instrument to Yonder Mountain’s music – drums.
“I think that this album (Black Sheep) is more akin to Elevation and Town By Town,’” Aijala said, referring to the band’s first two albums. “But it’s also the band that’s been around for 17 years, too, so it’s evolved as well.”
Aijala doesn’t hesitate to say Yonder Mountain is also a different band live without Austin, who was a charismatic performer and a focal point on stage. But he likes what Jolliff and Kral bring to the live show.
“Ben’s picked up a lot of the interaction with the crowd. I think he’s doing a really good job,” Aijala said.
“Allie’s stage presence is awesome. People just love her. There are like women and men screaming ‘Allie, Allie,’ like every show. It’s awesome.
“And Jake’s just a demon. People look just look at him while he’s soloing, and putting their arms up the air like ‘What the hell? This dude’s out of control. He’s so good.’”