Beyond the bluegrass establishment: Yonder Mountain String Band blisters with a progressive sound

Photo by Jay Blakesberg

who: Yonder Mountain String Band, with Lake Street Drive
where: The Orange Peel
when: Thursday, Jan. 24 and Friday, Jan. 25 (8:30 p.m. $25 each night. theorangepeel.net)

Despite a name suggesting traditional bluegrass music, Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band is far from conventional. Their adventurous brand of fast, uptempo, neo-bluegrass is renegotiating the terms of the genre.

If bluegrass is the trunk of a tree, strong and sturdy, than the sub-genres are its smaller branches and limbs, each slightly different. Some are well established, and others are just beginning to grow.

There are purists who will argue that progressives like YMSB are not “bluegrass.” But that doesn’t matter much to them.

“Some people will never accept what we do as bluegrass,” guitarist Adam Aijala tells Xpress just before taking the stage in Knoxville. “I'm not here to convert anybody. I just like doing what we do, you know? We're lucky to play music for a living.”

“When we first started playing together we were like, ‘We're going to be this bluegrass band,’” recalls Aijala. Their plan didn't quite work out that way. Early on, Aijala remembers that the band tried to write and play in a more traditional style. “That's just not how the songs came out,” he says. The bandmates couldn't shake heavy influences of punk and rock that had seeped into their souls growing up in Massachusetts and Illinois.

The band’s unique style, coupled with its raw live performances, has allowed it to reach beyond the bounds of the bluegrass establishment. Self-described as “neo-bluegrass,” the musicians believe their music is helping build a larger audience for the entire genre. “I kind of see that [growth] happening anyway with bands like The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons. It’s not bluegrass, but it’s definitely an offshoot,” says Aijala. “When people latch onto the different branches, including Yonder Mountain, it helps the whole scene.”

Extensive touring and festival gigs have become their M.O., and the quartet is bringing its high-energy show to The Orange Peel for two nights. “We love the Orange Peel,” says Aijala. “I love playing there. The Orange Peel is one of the cooler rooms that we play. We really like Asheville. There's a lot of good food, and we've always been well received there.”

So, what's next for the band? They’re going to keep making music their way. Creating genre-bending songs and putting on the exciting and rambunctious live shows for which they’re known. The band has not recorded a studio album since 2009's The Show, produced by Tom Rothrock (Foo Fighters, Beck). Don't worry, they are working on an EP and recorded a handful of tracks during their tour this past October. “We're totally lame, we haven't had a new record in a long time,” jokes Aijala. “We don't have a date but we want to get it done ASAP.”

John Zara can be reached at jzara@mountainx.com.

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