Yonder Mountain String Band has always played music by its own set of rules. Bending bluegrass, rock and countless other influences that the band cites, Yonder has pioneered a sound of their own. With their traditional lineup of instruments, the band may look like a traditional bluegrass band at first glance but they’ve created their own music that transcends any genre. Dave Johnston points out “What could be more pure than making your own music.” Yonder’s sound cannot be classified purely as “bluegrass” or “string music” but rather it’s an original sound created from “looking at music from [their] own experiences and doing the best job possible.” The band continues to play by their own rules on their latest record The Show.
The Colorado-based foursome has crisscrossed the country over the past eleven years playing such varied settings as festivals, rock clubs, Red Rocks Amphitheater in the band’s home state, and recently the Democratic National Convention in Denver at Mile High Stadium opening for Barack Obama. Their loyal fanbase has been built from this diverse setting of music venues as fans latched on to their genre-defying original sound.
The band has long cited such varied influences as the bluegrass of Del McCoury, Johnson Mountain Boys, Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, Osborne Brothers as well as the punk rock of Bad Religion, Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys. Somewhere in between these two tent poles are early 20th Century composers and alternative rock bands like Grandaddy and Postal Service. It’s all funneled through the band’s unique chemistry, honed since they first met at an informal club performance in 1998. With band members writing individually, in different pairings and as a collective, the album proves that this group is a collection of creative peers and you can hear it in the rich tapestry of music that makes up The Show.
The band is a regular at bluegrass festivals like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the band’s own Northwest String Summit as well as massive multi-stage events like Austin City Limits Festival, Bonnaroo and Rothbury. Fans are no doubt drawn to Yonder’s anything goes attitude, its humor and passion about music, and the band’s ability to stretch out live. “We love that people come to see us,” Johnston points out. “Everyone appreciates good music. Some people want to go to a recital and some people want to party.”
But as its fans know, Yonder Mountain String Band does something a little different, more than just a musical party. The Show is the band’s most varied and versatile album to date, and the summation of the journey that these guys are on together. It’s bluegrass for the masses, acoustic tunes filled with dazzling chops, and it’s fun to boot. The humble Johnston sounds as surprised as anyone by the band’s success, but knows that it all boiled down to chemistry, which has never changed. “Somewhere down there we all kind of recognized that we had something unique,” he explains. “But there is no way I could have imagined the amount of success that the band has had.”
Packway Handle Band
It all started in Athens, Georgia in 2001 during a most peculiar spell when 5 or 6 bluegrass bands circulated the town. The famous Athens, which had once spawned the B-52s, REM, Widespread Panic, and countless other indie, pop and punk acts, was now the home to a competing minority of bluegrass players. The Packway Handle Band emerged from this small scene, finding national acclaim first as finalists at the Telluride bluegrass competition in 2002 and 2003, then taking 2nd place in 2004. The band's 2003 debut album, "Chaff Harvest" was produced using prize awards from a local Battle of the Bands. PHB was on a roll and has continued to win over fans and rack up awards.
In early 2006 the band went on the road full time, wowing audiences across the country with close 4-part harmonies and their dance around two tightly-spaced condenser mics. The Packway Handle Band has emerged at the national forefront of bands that use this "gather around the mic" style. PHB's second full length record "(Sinner) You Better Get Ready" was recorded this way. Theirs is not a mission to preserve historical styles—it's just how they do what they do the best. And what they do best is rooted in thought provoking songwriting, clever choice and arrangement of bluegrass traditionals, and totally unexpected covers, all delivered with a crackling energy. If you get an idea of what Packway Handle is early in a show, you'll probably change your mind several times before they're done. But it's obvious their enthusiasm and sense of humor are honest, and that what they do appeals to broad audiences, even those who don't normally listen to bluegrass. Yes, they play bluegrass instruments, and hey, they even play them mostly in the bluegrass way; but you won't find a whole lot of lyrics about rambling or trains or wagon wheels, and you're not going to say you've heard this band before, unless you actually have.