The Mishawaka Amphitheater is a mystical place that lies somewhere between a state highway and a river in northern Colorado. It is one of those venues that most have heard of, even seen pictures of, but surprisingly, many in the region still remark that they have not set foot on its storied grounds. For others, this is a dynamic they would like to keep in place for fear that the secret will get out and future events and tickets would be more difficult to secure than they often already are. For over 100 years, The Mish, as it is affectionately called, has stood the tests of fire and flood and has been widely regarded as a place where magic occurs on the regular, hosting numerous acts for decades that have since become too large to play on its wooden river stage. Last weekend was no different.
Saturday and Sunday got the musical treatment from the jamgrass community favorite Yonder Mountain String Band and boy did these players deliver. Playing to back-to-back sold-out crowds, the group threw down three unforgettable sets to a sea of ecstatic fans. Supported by the high energy of Buffalo Commons on night one and the eclectic sounds of The Sweet Lillies plus wildmen Tuttle, Pool, & Greul for night two, the band made sure that everyone leaving the venue at the close of the weekend had more than a handful of memories to take home with them.
As often great things are born out of drama, Friday was wrought with uncertainty. With last summer’s epic fires in the northland saddled with the unseasonal amount of rain experienced in the area recently, these two dynamics had left the terrain set for landslides. With two landslides transpiring within days of the planned dates and more rain on the horizon, the Department of Forestry had already put the venue on watch and as of early Friday, it seemed likely that the venue would need to be changed, the shows rescheduled, or the whole event cancelled. With the deepest desire to see the show go on, both Yonder’s incredible management team and the dynamic production team of the Mishawaka shifted into overdrive and made phone call after phone call trying to secure another venue that would be capable of supporting 1000 fans for two nights at the last minute. At the close of each call, option after option had the open potential, but due to the late hour, staffing and supplies seemed to be the biggest barriers, and by Friday’s end, both teams came up short and there was still no exit plan. Saturday morning at 9:30 was to be the final phone call from the Department of Forestry and by the 10 o’clock hour, the powers that be gave a green light to the venue and the show was to go on.
Colorado born, Yonder Mountain String Band and its Kinfolk support have a deep connection to the Rocky Mountains and this part of the country and returning to the tiny stage of The Mish was certainly an emotional and historic moment for many inside its walls. Throughout the weekend, the band made many references to the love they held for the venue, not only as players with their own tales of their early years, but also as audience members themselves, seeing many others perform there who would contribute to their own development. As this was also the band’s first return to the venue since 2004, it was easy to detect that this weekend gave them pause, not only in nostalgia, but as a reflection of how far they had come delivering their personal take on the musical experience that so many have cherished for nearly three decades.
At one point, the band questioned the audience, polling the attendees by a show of hands, of just how many in attendance were there 17 years earlier at their last performance on the banks of the Poudre River. Surprisingly and yet not so much, there were at least 30 sets of hands raised and were counted as witnesses to the band’s journey, including one who, on Friday, celebrated her 200th Yonder show. Having such a close relationship with their fanbase and always showing the deepest appreciation for their support, the band took time to note this fan’s milestone and asked everyone in the house to help them celebrate the journey alongside her, the patronage doing so in kind by erupting in applause as the band and the single fan took it all in with smiles as wide as the riverbank itself.
For many fans, the experience of the weekend was akin to being transported back in time, getting to see their favored band again in such intimate surroundings under the Colorado sky, and with so many with the same emotional connection as themselves. This feeling also seemed to be reciprocated in the band, as often members were seen sitting out taking in the opening bands and exchanging genuine conversations, unhurried and natural, with those nearby. In the end, for many involved, whether player or listener, this weekend was a homecoming of sorts and played out with awe and beauty on so many levels. From the natural surroundings to the surreal isolation of the location to the connection with so many familiar faces, this emotional concoction certainly played a role in the next level playing the band demonstrated. At the weekend’s close, some in the audience commented that the magic the weekend had held had actually reinvigorated that love of music and the band that drew them in all those years ago and were already trying to figure when and where their next show would be.
For those outside the know, the band is comprised of Ben Kaufmann on electric and acoustic bass, Dave Johnston on banjo, Adam Aijala on acoustic guitar, Allie Kral on fiddle, and Nick Piccininni on mandolin. The chemistry that band is currently producing onstage is something not to be missed. Whether it is fueled by COVID or the band’s upcoming new album, the band is currently touring a great combination of mastery and precision alongside improvisation, surprise, and explosive moments that is drawing the crowd in night after night. Kaufman continues to lay down the steadfast timing of the band and does this without the aid of drums, a feat unto itself, while contributing a significant vocal range to the band’s delivery.
Allie Kral is a fireball of electricity, often coming off somewhere between a kid in a candy store and mad banshee as she saws her way through ripping solos, delivering notes with such fury it is a wonder her instrument hasn’t caught fire, while also being a significant contributor vocally.
Dave Johnston roles out his banjo lines effortlessly and is consistently listening with open ears for opportunity to accentuate the theme while never afraid to take the charge and deliver the lead. He is often the instigator of stage banter and dead pan comedy, making what he does on the banjo even that much more noticeable with its stark contrast to his subdued onstage persona.
Adam Aijala is a flat picker through and through and delivers on the craft with a focused facial expression and lightning quick fingers. His stringed talents match his vocals and the two together make him a distinct and integral sound to the band’s identity.
The newest member Nick Piccininni has infused a great deal into the band. He not only plays mandolin but delivers in a big way on the banjo and fiddle as well. The multi-instrumentalist dynamic is certainly not wasted on this group, as Piccininni is often pulled into duels with his counterparts depending on the instrument he is toting. Nick operates with a confidence on stage that no one would guess he was new to the band and what he delivers turns everyone’s energy up to eleven. As a whole, Yonder Mountain String Band is on the road continuing to make good on their tried-and-true name and are again upping their game with the infusion of new material and tour dates across the country.