A recent feature story in The Atlantic took a funny and insightful look at Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Music Festival, staged a couple of months ago in the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas. The piece was as much about the band-sponsored music festival phenomenon as it was about Yonder themselves (although the author was clearly a fan), and when we caught up to Jeff Austin and Dave Johnston last week, we asked them about the gig and whether it says something about what the 13-year-old progressive string band is (or may be) becoming midway through its astonishingly successful second decade.
After all, unlike the other bands referenced in the story, Yonder actually hosts two festivals, the other being the Northwest String Summit, tentatively scheduled next year for Aug. 9-12 “That’s a great question,” banjoist Johnston says. “I think that right now, it feels like we can do that sort of thing for a long time. The way we’re handling it and the way we’re putting together; we feel like we’ve got a good team. With the String Summit consortium and our Harvest Fest cadre, it feels pretty good right now.
“Y’know,” Johnston adds, “I’m really proud to have our name put on both of those festivals, I think it’s a beneficial thing.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” mandolinist Austin says. “I don’t think it changes who we are, I think it re-instates who we are. We’ve always wanted to take a bluegrass band, a hip-hop band, a rock band — it doesn’t matter — and have all those people come together, and just make music happen.
“For Harvest Festival,” Austin says, “it’s been pretty cool putting together our ‘wish list’ for next year. It’s a pretty eclectic group of people — that I came up with, and everyone is coming up with. … It’s about not really having any barriers, not saying, ‘We’re an acoustic band, that’s what we do.’ … I mean, [this year] we had everyone from Howard Levy to Bill Kreutzmann up there. … a guy writing concertos for the friggin’ D-flat harp, and then you got a guy who’s a founding member of one the bigger bands that ever was. Or you get Darrol Anger and Victor Wooten battling it out. That’s pretty cool.”
With talk of a new CD next year, the band’s first in more than two years, we wondered what the local faithful might look for in this epic downtown NYE run — new material, dig into a twitching satchel of longtime originals and famously incongruous covers … what?
“Probably a little of both,” Johnston says. “We got stuff in the works, and then we have the usual, amorphous ‘Let’s roll the dice’ kind of attitude as well.”
Adds Austin, “I just got back from hiking in Belize for 10 days, and I wrote a couple tunes, and one in particular I really want to show to the guys.
… But we also have a lot of material that kind of comes around for the first time this year that we’ve been developing on the road, and we’ll definitely be playing some of that. With the guests that are coming into town, too [Roy “Futureman” Wooten (drummer), Anger (fiddle), Andy Hall (pedal steel) and Rushad Eggleston (cello)], we really want to feature them. Material of theirs, or maybe some cool covers they want to play.”
It occurs to us that, between the seemingly boundless road/festival triumphs and the generous availability of live shows available online, Yonder really doesn’t need to make CDs anymore.
“We’re definitely not beholden to the typical pattern of CD production that a lot of bands are,” Johnston says. “That’s because we’ve found ourselves in a position where we can kind of call the shots. We’re really lucky in that regard.”
Austin agrees. “It’s nice to let the songs grow up on the road. We may play a song, and in the author’s head it’s one way, and when they take it to the band it turns into something else, but then you put it in front of 2,000 people, you may find new accents or a backbeat nobody thought of. Or someone my find a harmony on a line that really makes that line stand out.”
As for New Year’s resolutions … Austin: “I have a lot of personal changes that are going to be happening here. So I think my resolution is to stay on the same path. Keep physically strong and mentally patient, keep working at what I love, and try to keep redefining myself in yet more ways.”
Johnston: “I’m going to ride my bike more.”
On the Bill:
Yonder Mountain String Band plays the Boulder Theater on Dec. 29-31. Doors at 8 p.m.
Tickets are sold out. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-447-0095.