The members of Yonder Mountain String Band are familiar faces to Des Moines fans. Like clockwork, the Colorado bluegrass group makes a stop in town each summer, performing for an ever-growing group of dedicated fans. They’re back Thursday at Simon Estes Amphitheater.
Despite the frequent stops, the band does its best to make sure each show is fresh for fans.
“We look at what we played last year and try desperately not to repeat anything,” said mandolin player/vocalist Jeff Austin. “There are certain songs that are vehicles for us to jam, like ‘Traffic Jam,’ which we did last year. So we might use that as a segue piece, but we don’t want to make it a central part of either set of music.”
The band also knows that some fans travel to see them. So Yonder Mountain String band often composes set lists, keeping in mind with what they’ve played in surrounding areas as well. Fans who attended Yonder Mountain’s July 1 show in Kansas City or are following them to Fargo on Friday will get unique experiences.
Fans are dedicated to Yonder Mountain, but Yonder Mountain is also dedicated to its fans. Austin describes himself as suffering from ADHD and can pick out familiar faces from past shows in the crowd. Not just from the current tour, but from their last stop in town.
“I kind of feel like it’s my job to watch the crowd and see how they’re reacting, and figure out what’s working and what’s not,” Austin said. “I’m able to focus on a lot of different things, which is a blessing and a curse.”
The four members of YMSB have been performing together for 14 years, since they first met as students at the University of Illinois. That long-standing relationship means they have incredible chemistry when it comes to improvising with each other. Austin said the quartet watches for subtle cues on when songs are about to deviate from the script.
Austin said he gives a slight nod to guitarist Adam Aijala when he wants to start improvising. Aijala gives a look to Ben Kaufmann (bass) and Dave Johnston (banjo), and the jam will be on.
“We tend to take turns on who leads the jam to where it’s going,” Austin said. “Ben plays with his eyes closed a lot, but he can still pick up on it, and he’ll give a cue as subtle as moving his head in a ‘no’ motion and we’ll know we’re about to go somewhere. It comes with time, there’s no other way to get that.”
In a recent interview with the website Concert Confessions, Austin said that despite Yonder Mountain’s success as a grassroots touring band, he would love to sell a million records and have radio hits, and that “any musician who tells you different is a liar.”
The statement sparked some controversy among fans and other bands. Jam is a genre with very little radio support, and building a fan base through touring and fans trading live recordings is a point of pride for bands.
But Austin feels some increased mainstream exposure couldn’t hurt, pointing to the success The Avett Brothers have had as evidence that a radio hit doesn’t equal selling out.
“They had a song that was a hit, then said ‘Check out the cool (stuff) we can do with the benefit of selling a million records,’ ” Austin said. “I saw them at Bonnaroo, playing all this new music and it was just great. We’re a live band, and even if we were selling that type of music we would still be a live band. But saying you don’t want to sell a million records? That’s like performing on Broadway and saying ‘No, I don’t want a Tony.’ ”
Yonder Mountain String Band
Yonder Mountain String Band
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Simon Estes Amphitheater, Robert D. Ray Drive and E. Locust Street.
Cost: $20 in advance, $25 day of show.