Every year in the sweltering heat of August, three thousand pilgrims descend upon tiny North Plains, Oregon. Here, tucked away amidst the trickle of creeks and rustle of trees, headliner and creator Yonder Mountain String Band celebrate their culmination of summer, the Northwest String Summit. At this three-day jamboree, attendees are treated to daily performances by the progressive bluegrass group, as well as an array of other bluegrass, folk, and acoustic artists individually chosen by the Band itself. For fans of laid-back fingerpicking, the place is like Mecca.
Yonder Mountain String Band, also known as YMSB, has built a reputation on revolutionizing the sound of American bluegrass. The musicians use old-time instrumentation, weaving mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar and upright bass together with pitch-perfect vocal harmonies.
"We're not really traditional bluegrass," banjoist Dave Johnston affirms. "For one we're plugged in, and for two we understand how music goes together differently than the great, traditional bands." Instead, the Nederland, Colorado, quartet takes conventional flat-picking and transforms it through a modern jam-band aesthetic. Despite using traditional instruments and techniques, YMSB's sound straddles the line between bluegrass and rock. That's because band members grew up listening to rock and had to discover and develop a love for bluegrass.
"Growing up, we were surrounded by and influenced by rock music, for sure, but we all came to playing bluegrass because we felt that it had the same kind of emotional content happening musically," Johnston says. "When we heard bluegrass we came to the conclusion that it's equally as powerful as rock, equally as hard in certain respects, and it's a powerful thing that can inform your musical identity." Hence, by creating a modern adaptation of traditional bluegrass, YMSB's resulting fusion is therefore less applicable to a particular genre, but instead an invention of a distinctive and adventurous sound.
Although YMSB's non-traditional approach has attracted an ardent and loyal fan base, the band has also riled purists, such as the American Bluegrass Association. Because YMSB expands upon a wide spectrum of music, traditionalists believe that the group doesn't value bluegrass's roots. Still, expecting a band reared on rock to abandon its initial influences is a hefty request.
"You're always going to have someone who doesn't like what you're doing or thinks that you detract from some sort of defined medium," Johnston concedes, "but we're just regular people playing music we love and doing the best we can to play what we hear, so we don't really care if the purists are upset."
Thus, YMSB do as they please, mixing live covers of the Talking Heads and Ozzy Osbourne into their retinue of original songs. "All the songs that we cover have had some sort of impact on us, either subconsciously, harmonically, or melodically," Johnston says. "We try to choose songs that evoke a certain mood with us immediately, that seem to fit who we are."
YMSB is better known for its live shows than its studio releases for good reason, and thus the band is constantly touring. By expanding on their large catalog, the band makes sure that every performance is unique. "We try to keep a running analog database of what we play in particular cities so we don't repeat ourselves, then come up with sets that night," Johnston says.
The practice seems to be working. My friend, a 12-time concert attendee, attests that "they have so many songs in their act that they never seem to play the same songs twice. There are some songs I have never heard live, and many others I have only heard once or twice."
While constant touring has helped create a loyal fan base, it has also kept the band grounded. "Touring helps you learn not to be superficial about places you are in, to keep an open mind and not rush to any conclusions," says Johnston.
In the years since Yonder Mountain String Band's 1998 formation, the group has accumulated many accolades, a little disapproval, and a strong following. Still, it's not the critics but the fans who continually influence the band: "You understand that people are there for a good time, and that's a powerful influence. You want to be a part of their experience as well," Johnston comments.
Many fans, whether they are Coloradan jam-band devotees, dreadlocked hippies, or bluegrass aficionados, intermingle at the annual Northwest String Summit. And although the warmth and fervor of summer music festivals seem far off during gloomy gray days, deprived would-be festival-goers can still find respite in the more sheltered venues (i.e. The Big Easy) that an unpredictable Northwest spring necessitates. While the Big Easy can't boast the same outdoor ambiance as the secluded Horning's Hideout in North Plains, it will nonetheless provide YMSB with a worthy venue to create yet another inimitable live experience.
Yonder Mountain String Band at the Big Easy on Friday, April 19 at 9 pm. $15, $18 at the door. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.