By Michael Lester
When Yonder Mountain String Band hits the stage for its Halloween show at the Theatre of Living Arts Thursday, the assembled crowd down on Philly’s spirited South Street can “expect the unexpected,” Yonder banjo player Dave Johnston teasingly promised.
While making the less-than-revealing revelation that the band will appear in costume, Johnston otherwise played coy, saying “there will be more things involved” with this festive show.
“It’s a secret,” Johnston joked recently, when asked to elaborate. “The TLA is a fun place. It’ll be crazy. It’s not every day you’ll see Yonder Mountain like this. It’s going to be fun.”
Johnston, 39, spoke by phone with Highway 81 Revisited while sitting aboard Yonder’s tour bus with his bandmates as it rolled on to Milwaukee the afternoon after Yonder hosted and headlined its two-day Harvest Festival on Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, Ark.
To regulars of Yonder’s high-energy shows, the unexpected has become the norm from this bluegrass-based quartet that formed 15 years ago in Colorado by way of Illinois.
It was at the University of Illinois where Johnston first met Jeff Austin, the quirky, high-octane and rapid-fire mandolin player who has grown into the animated face of the band.
In addition to the band’s expanding catalog of original songs, Yonder is known for its eclectic cover song combination of both traditional bluegrass tunes and the seemingly unthinkable, be it borrowed from Frank Zappa (“I am the Slime”) or Ozzy Osbourne (“Crazy Train”).
Those attending Yonder performances at Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe, which has been an annual tour stop for the band since 2006, were treated the past two years to covers of “New Speedway Boogie” and “They Love Each Other” by the Grateful Dead, “Girlfriend is Better” by the Talking Heads and “After Midnight,” a song written by the late J.J. Cale made legendary by Eric Clapton.
“Oh man, I love Penn’s ” said Johnston, who has a college degree in creative writing. “It’s out in the country. It always seems like everyone’s having a great time.”
Yonder is also mixing it up in the studio, literally and figuratively, having earlier this month released its self–produced “YMSB EP ’13,” the first of a series of economized studio recordings the band plans to roll out.
“EP 13” includes four tracks recorded in studios they’ve taken up residence in while on the road, one written by each member of Yonder, which also includes Ben Kaufmann on bass and Adam Aijala guitar.
“We’re trying to think about different ways to release music. A lot of us don’t have time right now,” said Johnston, the father of a three-year-old and 11-month old, adding that Austin is due to become a new father in January.
“We’re trying to do little chunks and little pieces here and there, so that we can release stuff more frequently.”
We asked Johnston if there’s been any one moment or singular event over this decade and a half of Yonder’s existence when it occurred to him that his band had “arrived.”
“I haven’t really tried to qualify that. I’ve never really thought of it in those terms,” said the soft-spoken Johnston, who lives in Boulder, Colo. “Even though some parts of it are very difficult, we’re very grateful for our fans and that we get to play where we play.
“It’s hard to feel like we’ve made it. I think we’re more excited to keep climbing and keep doing it.
“It’s just something where we definitely feel a connection between us and the crowd that makes people feel like it’s a unique event.”