Listen to enough bluegrass and you'll be Living in a Band down by the River.The first time I saw Yonder Mountain String Band was at Portland's Roseland Theater in 1999. They were opening for Leftover Salmon in a room that seemed much too large for their acoustic instruments, and I remember the band's infectious enthusiasm was hitting my group of friends at the back of the room with full-force.
We were all blown away, and after their show, when we spied mandolin player Jeff Austin standing near the bar we decided to introduce ourselves. It was a forgettable meeting, to say the least, as we practically threw ourselves at the poor guy, telling him how "awesome" we thought the band sounded.
It would be another two years before I had the chance to see Yonder Mountain perform again, this time on the East Coast in Asheville, N.C. at a little rock n' roll dive called Stella Blue's. This time, we caught Jeff in front of the venue a couple of hours before show time. He was on a payphone, and we boisterously approached him, not even considering he might want some privacy for the phone call.
One of us asked him, "Hey, man. Wanna smoke with us?"
Jeff snapped his head around, covered the receiver and said, "Dude, I'm talking to my mom."
Yonder Mountain has come a long way from those days, playing less-than-full rooms and traveling the country in a tiny Econoline van. But one thing that hasn't changed is the band's approach to making true American music - something that's becoming a lost art form in today's world of sampled beats and prerecorded instruments.
True, the band's sound is best described as bluegrass, but a Yonder Mountain show is not just a walk through Bluegrass 101. They might toss in a reggae number or two, play their version of 1970s arena rock n' roll, or even dust off a classic heavy metal cover.
That's what makes a Yonder Mountain String Band show so fun: you're guaranteed to hear something you like.
"We get to change our focus a little while we're making music," said bassist Ben Kauffman, "It's not like we're putting on the same show the same way every night and operating under that model. We always write out a different set list, and I can't imagine doing it any other way. When I was growing up, I was listening to music to be surprised, and that's sort of why we approach our shows not repeating songs night after night the way we do."
All of the elements that make up the Yonder stew continue to go against the traditional bluegrass grain, which is why purists of the art form often decry the band's inclusion in the bluegrass gospel. Never mind the fact that true giants of the genre, everyone from Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury to Sam Bush and Bela Flek, even Willie Nelson, have performed with the band, either on stage or as part of the same evening bill.
"All these great musicians, people we grew up listening to and looking at saying, 'wouldn't it be great if fill in the blank played with us?' We are now getting to play with them," Kauffman said. "The more you play the more people you meet and then, really, the sky is the limit. You're only limited by your own creativity."
Ah, yes Bend. It's been only a year, but Yonder Mountain is coming back. And as far as what to expect at this year's Midtown Ballroom show - the sky really is the limit.
Yonder Mountain String Band
8pm Sunday, April 13. Midtown Ballroom, 51 NW Greenwood Ave., 388-1106. $20/advanced, $25/day of show. Tickets at Ranch Records and ticketswest.com.