Leftover Salmon blazed its own trail
Fifteen years ago this month, the musicians who would soon make up Leftover Salmon tried to lose – and failed at even that modest goal. Drew Emmitt and Mark Vann, then of the progressive bluegrass group the Left Hand String Band, and Vince Herman, then of the eclectic Salmonheads, led a parade of 13 pickers onto the stage for the Telluride Band Competition. The goal was to have a laugh, make a shambles of the proceedings – and lose.”We were basically having fun,” said Emmitt. “And trying to lose. Which we didn’t do. We came in next to last.”History has, probably mercifully, forgotten the band that finished behind the band that tried to lose in Telluride back in 1989. But the group that couldn’t fail has raised its sites considerably, and is hitting them with notable accuracy.Earlier this spring Leftover Salmon, still led by Emmitt and Herman, released a standout eponymous CD. Later this weekend, the now six-piece band makes its first appearance at Bonnaroo, the massive jam-band gathering in rural Tennessee. This weekend, Leftover Salmon headlines the Chili Pepper & Brew Fest in Snowmass Village, part of a typically festival-heavy summer that includes appearances at the High Sierra Music Festival, Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom, and moe.down.
The scene that Leftover Salmon – which includes keyboardist Bill McKay, drummer Jose Martinez, bassist Greg Garrison and banjoist Noam Pikelny, who replaced the late Vann, a victim of cancer – will be part of at Bonnaroo is one that didn’t exist 15 years ago. The jam-band world hadn’t been conceived of yet; there was the Grateful Dead, plus a few bands like Blues Traveler and Phish just beginning to get regional attention. And the idea of marrying bluegrass and rock, now a cornerstone of the jam-band scene, was in the experimental stage.”We didn’t think of ourselves as a jam band,” said Emmitt, a Tennessee native who has lived 31 of his 43 years in Colorado. “We were a bluegrass band playing other styles as well.”The models Leftover Salmon had to follow at the time were New Grass Revival and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But New Grass Revival was a string supergroup that played without a drummer, and the Dirt Band leaned heavily toward the country and folk directions. In reality, Leftover Salmon had to plow its own path.”We were the only band doing what we were doing back then,” said Emmitt. “It just kind of occurred to us. It was difficult to book the band. People would say, ‘You play banjos and mandolins? Okaaaay.’ So we had to blaze our own trails.”
Quickly, Leftover Salmon became an integral part of the nascent jam world. They filled clubs and then theaters. Their rowdy shows, marked by Herman’s theatrics and the blistering chops of Emmitt and Vann, made them stars in the rising festival scene. For years, their set defined late-night jamming at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The band has welcomed virtually all of their heroes, from Del McCoury to Sam Bush to Maceo Parker. It seems no coincidence that two of the top bluegrass-leaning jam bands, String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band, formed in Colorado soon after Leftover Salmon made its mark.On the recording side of things, the band’s history has been slightly spottier. The band’s earliest recordings, “Bridges to Bert” and “Ask the Fish,” were goofy experiments. “Euphoria,” from 1997, was a decent effort, but turned out to be the only CD ever released on the Aspen-based Mountain Division label. “The Nashville Sessions,” from 1999, was well-received, but more notable for the guest list – Waylon Jennings, John Popper, Lucinda Williams, Taj Mahal and more – than for the contributions of the band itself.”Leftover Salmon” erases any doubt that the band can make a studio album essentially on their own. The album was produced by Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne, but aside from one piano track from Payne and a harmony vocal by K.C. Groves, it’s all Leftover. The band shows its newgrass chops on the instrumental “Lincoln at Nevada,” gets an edgy, old-timey feel on “Fayetteville Line,” and Emmitt’s Southern-fried “Delta Queen” sounds like a song you’ve heard a thousand times before, even though it’s brand-new.”It’s kind of a different sort of record for us,” said Emmitt, who has lived in Crested Butte the last four years. “We keep saying it’s a more mature direction for us. We made the record at a time when we were touring a lot. So it was a good time to do it. We were more relaxed than ever going into the studio.”
Though Emmitt has no problem being part and parcel of the jam-band universe, he notes that Leftover isn’t as focused on the extended wandering jam as many of their brethren. (Although, when I point out that I’d just listened to the band’s jam-heavy “Live” CD, Emmitt could only laugh and point out that Leftover usually confines its extended jams to two or three a night.)”It’s not our focus to get out and jam,” he said. “We may be the only jam band that has songs that have a traditional song format. Because we come from a bluegrass background, we’ve focused on songs and lyrics and vocals.”But in one significant aspect, Leftover Salmon is very much akin to its fellow jammers. Like Phish, Widespread Panic, the Greyboy Allstars and, long ago, the Grateful Dead, Leftover is about to take an extended hiatus, from which they may or may not return. After a summer of shows, the band will play Halloween at the Fillmore in Denver and then, apart from a likely New Year’s Eve gig, take an extended break. Pikelny will tour with John Cowan’s band, Herman will pursue solo projects and Emmitt will lead a four-piece bluegrass band.”We’re going to get a break from it,” said Emmitt. “After 15 years, I think that’s a healthy thing. But the plan is to come back.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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I try to remember to give thanks every day I spend outside, whether it be floating the Colorado or Roaring Fork, fishing an epic dry fly hatch on the Fryingpan, or teasing up tiny brook trout on a remote lake or stream. We’re spoiled rotten here, so it’s easy to be thankful.