The first press conference of this year’s Harvest Fest opened with Samantha Fish and finished with Yonder Mountain String Band. While I was super excited to see Yonder and learn about everything new for them and the band, I admit that I wasn’t very familiar with the other musicians before this year’s festival. To me, one of the things that’s most awesome about covering a music festival is getting to explore music that I might not have otherwise checked out, and I was not disappointed this year.
At first glance, Samantha Fish doesn’t appear to be the seasoned blues musician and vocal powerhouse that she most certainly is. She’s incredibly down to earth, yet projects confidence when she speaks about her music and her passions. As she a Kansas City-based musician, the obvious first question asked by the press was, “How about them Royals?” Samantha revealed herself to be an enthusiastic Royals fan with high hopes for the home team. A fan expressed that he wished she would be invited to sing the national anthem at Kauffman stadium, however, Samantha won’t be home for very long, as she is leaving soon for a European tour with Mike Zito. When asked about the difference between playing for European crowds and playing for American crowds, Samantha said that Europeans appreciated blues music not just as entertainment but as a cultural artifact. Even though there are blues acts in Europe, blues is still very much an American export, and audiences love getting an “authentic American blues experience.” Samantha also revealed herself as a nature enthusiast who struggles between wanting to spend her down time out having fun and staying in and hanging out with her cats. As part of a touring act and spending so much time out on the road, she says, cats and her own bed usually win out.
When Yonder Mountain String Band entered, it was exciting to see the new line-up. Yonder veterans Ben Kauffman, Dave Johnston, and Adam Aijala were joined by Allie Kral (who played fiddle in Cornmeal from 2003-13) and Jake Jollif (2012 national mandolin champ who previously played in Joy Kills Sorrow). Yonder kicked things off by addressing what everyone clearly wanted to know: what’s in store for Yonder with these new additions to the band? Ben pointed out that the “official new additions” status was still in negotiations and jokingly quipped that he could only describe playing with Allie and Jake as being “pretty alright,” because if they knew how much they were wanted their contract would start getting more expensive. Jake and Allie both expressed excitement and joy to be playing with Yonder. Jake is grateful that he plays with a band who “lets him have incredibly long mandolin solos.” I’m sure Yonder fans aren’t complaining about hearing such a talented mandolinist solo during beloved Yonder favorites! As this is the first time that Yonder has featured a lady as a regular band member, some folks were curious as to what the new dynamic is like. Much humorous banter on gender stereotypes followed, with Allie saying that she tries to tone down how many shoes she brings on the tour bus and Adam suggesting that he might start keeping a list of “most unexpected things on the Yonder tour bus.” First item on the list? “Yarn. Lots of… yarn.”
Since the past few years have been rainy mud fests, Ben made sure to give a shout out to the glorious weather gracing this year’s Harvest. He said that when they arrived on the mountain and spent some time walking around the grounds, he felt that this year’s festival was going to be amazing and that the weather was perfectly reflecting the incredible happiness he was feeling inside.
One thing that I knew I had to ask about is how Yonder has managed to maintain longevity as a band after almost twenty years making music. I also asked how having new band members contributed to this longevity. Dave explained that the best way to keep something fresh and alive is to see it from a new perspective, and that’s exactly what playing with new bandmates provides. He said that getting to see even old Yonder classics reimagined through Jeff and Allie has helped make some of their old material fun and inspiring to them again. Allie, in a nod to our name and to the Grateful Dead, added that a huge part of the reason that the Grateful Dead maintained such a following and were so loved is that fans could always count on them to present a fresh, new experience with every show. Not only did they have a huge catalog of music to draw from, but they were always willing to look at their old music in new ways and with new perspective. She believes that that is something that Yonder does for folk music and why people will come out to see them play two and three-hour sets three nights in a row.
I definitely agree with her on this point. Every Yonder show is a unique experience, no matter what songs they are playing. It was really neat to get to know more about such an awesome band as awesome humans, and I think that it made watching their sets somehow an even better experience.