:: Yonder Mountain String Band :: with Keller Williams ::
:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: August 2 ::
By Timothy Dwenger
Ten years ago, Yonder Mountain String Band was just another little bluegrass band from the hills of Boulder, Colorado. They played open mic nights, friends’ living rooms and, of course, the ultimate right of passage, opening slots at The Fox. While they have been growing steadily, in the last few years the band’s popularity has exploded well beyond the confines of the jam band community, and that doesn’t come without its hardships.
Today they stand poised at the brink of one of the most important shows of their career: their second headlining gig at Red Rocks. As Jeff Austin said in a recent interview with The Marquee from his home outside Nederland, “Last year was pretty surreal. It was an intense experience, but it was over before I knew it. The fact that it did sell-out was pretty cool but, not being the glass-half-full guy I used to be, it made me go, ‘Oh shit, does this mean we have to come and sell it out every time or it’s going to feel weird?’
“There were certain parties that were wanting us to do two Red Rocks gigs this year and we told them, ‘You’re out of your mind! We appreciate your faith in us, and that’s great, but the reality of the situation is that we can’t get ahead of ourselves. Let’s see what we can do this year.’ I mean, we’re not Widespread Panic selling the place out in four hours,” he said.
It is this healthy skepticism that seems to be at the core of Austin’s philosophy about the music business these days. Some may take it as pessimistic, but in reality, it’s not. He’s been deeply involved in the business and has seen all sides of it in the 10 years that Yonder has been climbing to the place that they are today. It’s been a long road with sparsely attended gigs, record company woes and the other pitfalls of the business, but Austin and bandmates have soldiered through it all together. While today they seem to be reaping the rewards, Austin’s skepticism is rooted in a profound love for what he is doing and the desire to keep it as pure as possible.
“I have this internal refusal to quit. Every time that I am ready to just throw it in and say, ‘You know what, I’d rather just go cook somewhere, this is emotionally and mentally just too much,’ I think of all that’s been created and what a shame it would be to have it die a premature death,” Austin said before turning positive. “I’ve got to say that things keep getting better in terms of the music. If I thought we had nothing else musically to give it would be time to wrap it up, but we keep creating new things that are so intriguing that it really keeps me going,” he said.
There are other things that seem to keep Austin going and one of those things has been booked right alongside Yonder for a bulk of their summer tour and will be joining them at their big Red Rocks gig; the one-man jam band himself, Keller Williams. “This year we are going in there with a guy who is a special friend and it is going to be a great moment to get to hang out there with him and just kinda reflect on how it went,” Austin said.
The relationship between Williams and the Yonder boys goes back to 2000 when the five met at a West Coast festival (exactly which festival seems to be up for debate) and hit it off immediately. “We got together and I think we played four or five songs together on stage the first time we met,” said Williams in another recent interview with The Marquee, as his daughter got ready for gymnastics. “They were young and hungry and ready to jam and I remember getting on really well. We did a song of mine called “Ding-a-Ling” and I think we did a bluegrass version of ‘Rock-N-Roll All Night’ by KISS. There were a couple of others but I can’t recall right now.”
Austin had similar fond recollections of that first meeting. “I just thought right off the bat when we met him, ‘Wow what a really nice guy,’ and he’s been the same guy since I first met him,” Austin said. “He’s had the same attitude, the same mindset, and that speaks highly of a person. It’s not like he’s had no success in his time. I mean, you think of the places that he’s filled on his own, there are huge bands of people that can’t draw like he can.”
Today, the relationship has only gotten stronger and the five musicians seem to have a truly good time on the road when touring together. “At Rothbury, our buses were parked right next to each other and they were cooking out steaks and brats together on their little grills. We definitely got to hang out,” said Williams.
It seems that as much as he respects the good-time, fun loving side of Williams’s personality, Austin also respects his work ethic. “When you go out under the insane conditions that exist on the road, it really helps to be around even-keeled people who work their asses off like you do. We love the fact that he does, and his entire crew does as well. It’s not coincidental that we keep playing with him. We’ve done a couple of weeks with him this summer and we are getting ready to do another week-and-a-half or so before it all culminates at Red Rocks. It’s pretty cool for a bunch of guys who all started with nothing not too long ago,” Austin said.
It has been a summer chock full of sit-ins and long jams and while this is no doubt hard work, when September rolls around the Yonder boys are going to focus their energies a bit and crank out their fifth studio album. As their fans know, Yonder studio albums have always seemed to be a bit of the Dr. Jekyll to the Mr. Hyde of their live shows. While the live shows are full of freeform jamming, segues between songs and general mayhem, their studio material leans toward a much more refined approach to bluegrass that focuses on tight song structure and harmonies. The band is again working with producer Tom Rothrock (Beck, Elliot Smith, The Foo Fighters), who produced their last record, and things seem to be going very well.
“We’ve been writing new material at a pretty fevered pace recently,” Austin revealed. “At the end of May we went to L.A. and worked on the next studio record for about a week or so and at the beginning of September we are heading back for about two weeks and hopefully we’ll get the new album in the bag.”
When all is said and done, it’s a sure thing that these boys from the hills of Boulder will be remembered as one of America’s great bluegrass bands but, along the way, there will hopefully be lots more rivers to cross, and it’s clear from the words of Austin himself that the fans keep him going as much as the music does.
“Nothing will make your day like playing in front of 40,000 people at Bonnaroo. Nothing will make your day like everybody standing up at Telluride, or 4,000 people showing up for a show in the middle of nowhere in Virginia. Those things will push you to new heights. Sometimes you wake up on the road and are having a real down day and you get in front of a couple of thousand people who are incredibly motivated to be there and bring the best out of you and they do, it happens,” Austin said.
:: Yonder Mountain String Band ::
:: with Keller Williams ::
:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre ::
:: August 2 ::
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