Yonder Mountain String Band @ Red Rocks

While every gig is special for Yonder Mountain String Band, the super-charged bluegrass band has turned its annual headlining gigs at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre into a tradition.  YMSB’s Adam Aijala talks with Pollstar about this year’s show.

Located Southwest of Denver near Morrison, Colo., Red Rocks is a gorgeous, natural amphitheatre amongst the geological splendor that is The Rockies.  U2’s classic live album “Under A Blood Red Sky” is just one of the many discs that have emerged from performances at the venue.

Yonder Mountain String Band rolls into Red Rocks Aug. 20, along with guests Drive-By Truckers and Preservation Hall Jazz Band.  While YMSB founers Adam Aijala  (guitar/vocals), Dave Johnston (banjo/vocals), and Ben Kaufmann (bass, vocals) are well acquainted with the famous venue, the upcoming evening of music will mark the second time Allie Kral (violin/vocals) and Jacob Jolliff (mandolin/vocals) have played the amphitheatre as members of YMSB.

Photo: Jake Blakesberg

Was your first Red Rocks experience as a performer or an audience member?

I think I saw The Allman Brothers there.  I don’t remember the year.  It was probably within a few years of us playing there.  E-Town did a little thing there and that was the first time we got to play there. We played two or three songs and [appeared] with a bunch of bands. It’s crazy, man.  When you think … 18 years of the same band, stuff really blends together. (laughs)

Do you see Red Rocks as one of the biggest Yonder Mountain String Band dates on the band’s calendar?

It’s definitely within the top 5.  We’ve been doing Telluride Bluegrass Festival for so many years.  We’ve been doing Northwest String Summit.  It just celebrated its 15th anniversary and we’ve been a part of all 15.  We’ve been to Telluride – I think this was our 16th main stage, 17th attendance in a row.  So those are important as well.  And those have turned into a reunion of sorts.  You see a lot of the same people come back every year, not just the people who work the festival, [but] or musicians, or people who come year after year, like fans.  [The festivals] seem to come quicker ever year.  “Oh, we’re back at Telluride, again” or “We’re back at Horning’s Hideout.”

Red Rocks is its own deal.  Esthetically, it’s tough to beat.  I’ve seen some amphitheatres in Arizona that kind of have some red rocks and stuff around, but there’s nothing like Red Rocks.  It’s definitely one of a kind. The steepness of the seating, as a concertgoer, is pretty awesome, too.  And it’s really cool from the stage to look up … with those rocks on the side.  I love playing there. 

Last year was Allie and Jacob’s first time there.  I don’t remember if Allie had been there as a fan, before, but I know Jacob had never been there. … It was pretty cool to look at them, even when we walked out for sound check, like, “Check this out.”  Nevermind the show itself. 

The way I like to look at it, though … I feel like if we play a benefit for 100 people, or a smaller show, it’s just as important to me as playing a big show at Red Rocks or at Telluride Bluegrass.  I want to play as well as I can, always. Esthetically, that’s a one-of-a-kind place.  It has a special vibe in it.

Red Rocks’ natural acoustics are highly praised.  Can you hear the difference while performing at the venue?

I think I’m pushing two and a half years of using these [in-ear] monitors that have little microphones on each ear on the outside that have their own volume knobs and separate receivers.  I can adjust that.  I have my regular monitor banks that everyone else has, but I can adjust this other volume … I think there’s seven levels … you can have it wide open, completely closed or several levels in between. In a place like that, the outdoor venues are when you can really use a lot more ambient sound.  It gets a little squashy and boomy if you do it too much in smaller venues, especially with the tall ceilings that are kind of on the smaller side. But a place like [Red Rocks], you can totally hear it.

I’ve heard from a lot of people that acoustic music, specifically, doesn’t sound great at Red Rocks, but people have always commented, “Your sound guy, Ben Hines, he gets it sounding so good.”

I’ve never been able to see a Yonder Mountain show.  I’ve been a part of them all, but I’m never out in the crowd, so I don’t even know.  But it’s good to know people are digging it.

Has the band already started determining the setlist for the show?

Some ideas.  There’s stuff we’ve started playing.  We’re working on a new record. Actually, all this week we’re in the studio. … We’ve recorded some new songs that we’ve started playing live, a couple of them.  We got a bunch of stuff done this week.  It was actually really productive.  We’re just that much closer to being done.  We’re shooting for a first quarter 2017 release.  We just have to find time to squeeze in overdubs.  I think we might have most of our live tracks recorded, and it might just be overdubs left.  Maybe a couple more things but I think we’re pretty good.

We’ll have some new stuff [for Red Rocks].  Last year we played almost every song from our last album which came out last year in June.  We try to mix it up.  Try not to do repeats year to year in any given market. … Try to give a different show in the same towns we play, just to keep it fresh.

Does performing at a venue like Red Rocks, which is more than one mile above sea level affect your voice or guitar?

Nah. I’ve lived 11 years at 8,500 feet and now I live in Boulder which is even lower. … Even at Telluride it doesn’t affect me.  I know people come from all over, like a lot of Nashville folks at Telluride Bluegrass, and they’re like, “Man!  The singing is so much harder here.” And I’m like, “I don’t notice.”  Your body acclimates, I think. … You just get used to it.

Did you and your other bandmates play any pranks to welcome Yonder Mountain’s newest members?

Jacob, you wouldn’t know it but he’s actually really sarcastic and funny. He and I are constantly razzing each other.  I grew up on the East Coast and came up with the mentality that you just fuck with each other.  They’re your friends.  You’re not being mean, you’re just messing with each other.  So we tease each other all the time.  We go easy on Allie.  We definitely tease her about stuff.  One of the running things she does is tell a story that’s kind of out of left field, that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, and I’ll be like, “Good story, Allie.”  And she’ll just laugh.

They’re great energy to have.  They fit in well with our humor, they fit in musically.  It’s tough to live with the people you work with. … [The band and crew] are like family, like brothers. And Allie and Jacob are already that.

Our average show keeps getting better, too.  The more hours you log onstage with somebody, the more confidence you have in each other’s ability, and the more you can relax and the more you can enjoy it.  We’re always coming up with new songs but I’m always the guy saying, “We need more songs.”  Because you want to keep things fresh. Not just for fans but for us, too.

I have a lot of respect for bands that can play, more or less, the same set every night.  It’s going to be real polished and tight as hell, but I, personally, would have a hard time doing that. I think I would be bored.  But all the same, by being the band that we are, it’s not going to be super-tight and polished.  We don’t do that.  There could be a song at Red Rocks that we play twice all year.  You never know.  There’s an excitement to that in some ways.  I’m not 100 percent sure what’s going to happen.  I like that.  That vibe is nice. Especially on the stuff that opens up.  You have a chance to jam a little bit and go places where you’re not really sure where it’s going to go.  It will either follow my guitar lick or Ben’s bass line or Jacob’s rhythm and take us somewhere.

Will there be a special set design for the Red Rocks show?

Possibly.  We have some cool stuff in the works.

What would you like to tell the world about the Red Rocks show that hasn’t yet been said?

Upcoming Yonder Mountain String Band shows:

Aug. 20 – Morrison, Colo., Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Aug. 31 – Bayfield, Wis., Big Top Chautauqua
Sept. 1 – Moorhead, Minn., Bluestem Center For The Arts
Sept. 2 – Des Moines, Iowa, Simon Estes Riverfront Amphitheatre
Sept. 3 – Minden, W.Va., Ace Adventure Resort
Sept. 4 – Canton, N.C., Canton Labor Day Fest
Oct. 5 – Birmingham, Ala., WorkPlay Theatre
Oct. 6 – Augusta, Ga., Jessye Norman Amphitheatre
Oct. 7 – Corolla, N.C., Mike Dianna’s Grill Room (Mustang Music Festival)
Oct. 8 – Charlotte, N.C., U.S. National Whitewater Center
Oct. 9 – Boone, N.C., Legends
Oct. 12 – Roanoke, Va.,  Jefferson Center
Oct. 13 – Morgantown, W.Va., Mainstage Morgantown
Oct. 14 – Charlottesville, Va., Jefferson Theater
Oct. 15 – Washington, D.C., 9:30 Club
Oct. 16 – Ardmore, Pa., The Ardmore Music Hall
Oct. 19 – Brooklyn, N.Y., Brooklyn Bowl
Oct. 20 – Brooklyn, N.Y., Brooklyn Bowl
Oct. 21 – Boston, Mass., Paradise Rock Club
Oct. 22 – South Burlington, Vt., Higher Ground – Ballroom
Oct. 23 – Portland, Maine, Port City Music Hall
Oct. 26 – Ann Arbor, Mich., The Ark
Oct. 27 – Milwaukee, Wis., Turner Hall Ballroom
Oct. 28 – Minneapolis, Minn., First Avenue
Oct. 29 – Chicago, Ill., House Of Blues
Oct. 30 – Omaha, Neb., The Waiting Room
Dec. 9-13 – Puerto Morelos, Mexico, New Sapphire Resort (Strings and Sol)

Please visit YonderMountain.com for more details.