It’s been about a year since Yonder Mountain String Band announced that after sixteen years of playing together, founding member Jeff Austin was moving on.
The remaining members (Adam Aijala on guitar, Dave Johnston on banjo, and bassist Ben Kaufmann) decided to forge ahead and treat it not as an end, but a beginning. Pushing through this transitional period has led to a new album (Black Sheep, scheduled for national release at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival on June 16, 2015) and, at least for the time being, two new band members. Allie Kral (fiddle) and Jacob Jolliff (mandolin) played on the new album, and have signed on to tour with the band throughout 2015.
Last Thursday (March 26), Yonder Mountain String Band brought their fresh perspective to Portland, Oregon’s Crystal Ballroom. Armed with a full array of traditional bluegrass instrumentation, they worked through a first set of tightly composed songs. Big cheers arose after Kaufmann expressed his love of Portland and then introduced “40 Miles From Denver,” a favorite from the bands 1999 debut album, Elevation. The set ended with a rollicking “Remind Me>Casualty.”
Yonder set the bar pretty high after the break, coming out with a strong version of “I Know You Rider.” Overall, the second set felt a little more exploratory. It also offered up a good variety of aural flavors. A third of the way through, “Mother’s Only Son” had the crowd singing along, before transitioning into “Southern Flavor.”
They then busted out a little Linda Ronstadt, with Allie Kral singing “You’re No Good.” A gritty “Angel” led into Bruce Spingsteen’s “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” to close set two. The encore featured two more covers. Kral handled vocals on Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” before the band closed with Bob Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident.
Allie Kral and Jacob Jolliff aren’t just filling in — they’re fully integrated. Kral moved to Portland around the time of her departure from the Chicago-based band Cornmeal in 2013, and has been sharing her talents with a number of different bands. When people see her play, they’re often left picking their jaws up off the floor. Meanwhile, Jolliff was the 2012 national mandolin champion, and it’s hard to imagine just how many notes he plays during one of his lightning-fast solos. The two up the ante, adding a new dimension to Yonder’s sound.
On Thursday, the energy of Yonder Mountain String Band was that of a young band. And indeed, in this configuration, they are. Nothing lasts forever, and it’s good to see Yonder embracing change. And it’s good to see a room full of fans who are doing the same.