Leftover Salmon – and a festival of friends
Leftover Salmon was born of a festival. The band came together when two separate, Colorado-based groups – the newgrass outfit the Left Hand String Band, and the eclectic Salmon Spankers – combined forces to make a farce of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s 1989 band competition. Rather than play things straight and go for a competition win, head Salmon Spanker Vince Herman, who is known to do such thing, used the opportunity of the band competition for some craziness. His idea was to put as many musicians, including all of the Salmon Spankers and all of the Left Hand String Band, on stage for a memorable festival experience.The group didn’t win, but a band was formed. Taking bits of both names, and players from both outfits, the Salmon Spankers and the Left Hand String Band collided to form Leftover Salmon. And despite the haphazard nature of the formation, the resulting group has proved enduring: Nearly 13 years after Leftover Salmon was born on the festival stage, it is still swimming, performing from the California mountains to the Carolina hills. Leftover Salmon has tried mightily to keep alive that festival spirit in which it was created. At most every concert – be it a weekend-long outdoor gathering, or a single night in a dark nightclub – Herman will yell out the band’s rallying cry, “festivaaaalll.” The band has staged several of its own Salmonfests, in North Carolina and Colorado, that have included several days of band after band, followed by guest-heavy Leftover Salmon sets. The band has also been a staple at such festivals as the High Sierra Festival in Northern California, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (which apparently didn’t take to heart that the band made a shambles of its 1989 band competition).What has kept the festival spirit burning more than anything has been the way Leftover Salmon, as a matter of course, invites musicians to join their jams. Almost every Leftover show features a special guest, either announced or not. At festival appearances, audiences can count on at least one other musician from the bill hopping onstage during Leftover Salmon’s set. The band even managed to make a festival of a recording project: For their 1999 album “The Nashville Sessions,” Leftover Salmon brought in at least one guest for each of the 13 songs. The guest list included bluegrass and country legends (Del McCoury, Waylon Jennings, and Randy Scruggs, who produced the CD), jam-band stars (Widespread Panic’s John Bell, Todd Park Mohr of Big Head Todd and the Monsters), and an entire newgrass contingent (Bla Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas).On the band’s current ski-town tour – a festival-like caravan dubbed the Mardi Gras Mountain Parade – the band is bringing in the usual cast of friends. For the Telluride shows (Friday and Saturday, Feb. 8-9 at the Telluride Conference Center), the opening band is New Orleans Juice; on the Vail date (Feb. 17 at Dobson Ice Arena), it’s a co-bill with Galactic, another New Orleans funk band. It will be a shock it there are not extensive collaborations between those bands and Leftover.When the Mardi Gras Mountain Parade hits Aspen for two shows – Monday, Feb. 11, and Tuesday, Feb. 12, the actual Mardi Gras day – there will be no opening bands. Instead, Leftover Salmon will play two-set shows, with an acoustic set followed by an electric set. And of course, there will be special guests: Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick, of the late Colorado bluegrass band Hot Rize on Monday; dobroist/lap steel player Sally Van Meter on Tuesday.”It’s all about the festival tradition with us,” said Drew Emmitt, the singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who came from the Left Hand String Band contingent to help form Leftover Salmon. “We started the band at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and we always wanted to hang out with our friends, let them sit in and have fun. It’s so cool having Bla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush sit in. ‘The Nashville Sessions’ was the culmination of that, making a record of that.”It’s enriching for us.”That focus on friends has proved to be not only fulfilling, but also a near necessity to keeping the band alive. When original drummer Michael Wooten left a few years back, the band was able to dip into its bag full of friends and land Jeff “Apt. Q-258” Sipe, who the band members knew from his years with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. When both Sipe and original bassist Tye North left the band last year, Leftover Salmon not only found a solid replacement rhythm section of drummer Jose Martinez and bassist Greg Garrison, but also expanded, by adding keyboardist Bill McKay, a member of the defunct Colorado group Band du Jour, as well as a part of the Derek Trucks Band.More significantly, when original banjoist Mark Vann took ill with lymphoma not long ago, Leftover Salmon has been calling on a rotating cast of banjoists to fill in. In recent weeks, the banjo slot has been occupied by the Reverend Jeffrey Mosier of Blueground Undergrass; mandolinist-turned-banjoist Matt Flinner; and the John Cowan Band’s Scott Vestal, who will appear for the Aspen shows. Colorado banjoist Tony Furtado will join Leftover Salmon for several future shows.When Leftover Salmon staged a series of benefit concerts for Vann this past November, in Boulder and Fort Collins, the friends came out in full force. Bla Fleck, Peter Rowan, Todd Park Mohr and several members of Little Feat all came out for the fund-raisers. For Emmitt, the benefit concerts were not just about raising money for Vann, but about getting over the grief.Playing with friends is important, said Emmitt, “especially at this time. Doing the Salmon & Friends things, it helped get us through the tough times. It’s been great to have such friends at a time like this.” Emmitt added that throwing in the towel on Leftover Salmon isn’t an option that has been seriously thought about. “Mark really wants us to keep it going,” said Emmitt, who was also a bandmate of Vann’s in the Left Hand String Band. (Emmitt said that Vann has completed chemotherapy treatment and is hopeful for a recovery.) “And none of us wants to quit doing it. We have so much invested in it. And we want to do it. We still love it.”Having a continuous parade of guest players has helped shape the way Leftover Salmon approaches its music. They have jammed with funk saxophonist Karl Denson, acoustic wizard John McEuen, rockers Paul Barrre and Billy Payne from Little Feat, to mention a small few. And that has meant having to keep the music flexible, to accommodate all those styles.”We’re wide-open,” said Emmitt, a Tennessee native who moved to Colorado in 1973. “We don’t have a lot of staunch rules, and we like to make it fun. We like that atmosphere, and it makes it easy for people to come in and have fun. We’re an anything-goes sort of band.”Only occasionally is it difficult to fit a guest into the band. “When it’s people who we don’t know well, or if it’s someone we met on the street that day, who seemed good and turns out to be not quite what we thought,” said Emmitt. “But we usually find a way to make it work.”Another good reason for not giving up on Leftover Salmon is the “O Brother” factor. Sparked by the out-of-nowhere success of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack – now up around 4 million copies sold – bluegrass music is experiencing unprecedented popularity. Leftover Salmon’s music isn’t bluegrass exactly. Its unique style, which they call polyethnic Cajun slamgrass, is also not exactly zydeco, jam rock, country or blues. But, with banjo and mandolin and Herman’s acoustic guitar, it’s close enough to bluegrass that Leftover is finding itself in higher demand than ever.”Bluegrass is really becoming huge these days. It’s really starting to come back,” said Emmitt, who performed at the Wheeler, with John Cowan’s band, late last year. “It’s affected us, definitely. More people are appreciating bluegrass, and appreciating what we do. We get to turn people on to bluegrass who normally would never come out and see it. And there’s a lot of crossover starting to happen between between the bluegrass scene and our kind of scene.”Leftover Salmon’s festival-oriented approach is even leaking into a side project of Emmitt’s. He is due to release his solo debut, “Freedom Ride,” on April 9. Along for the ride are bluegrass heavyweights Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan, Stuart Duncan, Sam Bush and Ronnie McCoury. The album, to be issued on Compass Records, was produced by Emmitt, with John Cowan.