Leftover Salmon comes back ’round
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Leftover Salmon was born on the concert stage. At the 1989 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, two bands – the Salmon Spankers and the Left Hand String Band – combined forces to have some fun with the festival’s band competition. The group didn’t win but a band was formed, taking members – Vince Herman from the Salmon Spankers, Drew Emmitt and Mark Vann from the Left Hand String Band – from both sides, as well as bits of both names.
It proved a fitting beginning. Leftover Salmon seems built to be a live act. They are known as a festival crowd-pleaser; their sense of humor works best onstage; their jamming sensibility translates well to the live arena.
So maybe it comes as no surprise that Leftover Salmon’s history as a recording act is spotty. There have been large gaps of time between CDs and a constant shuffling of business relationships.
The band put out two early CDs on its own: 1992’s “Bridges to Bert” on Whirled Beets Records, and 1994’s “Ask the Fish,” recorded live at Boulder’s Fox Theatre, on Bert Records. The two albums showed the band’s goofiness as much as its musical prowess. “Bridges to Bert” featured “Pasta on the Mountain,” a reworking of the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” that celebrated the life of a high-country hippie. “Ask the Fish” showed the band mixing its zydeco, bluegrass and rock influences – a blend it calls polyethnic Cajun slamgrass – with an environmental message about marine life, delivered with typical eccentricity.
In 1997, Leftover Salmon made its first flirtation with the corporate music business. The band released “Euphoria,” recorded with veteran producer Justin Niebank, on the Aspen-based Mountain Division, an affiliate of Hollywood Records. It would be the only CD to come out of the Mountain Division.
Moving over to Hollywood, Leftover Salmon hit an improbable high point, with a lot of help from their friends. “The Nashville Sessions,” released in 1999, was produced by Randy Scruggs – son of banjo legend Earl Scruggs – and, in the mold of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” albums, was a meeting of musical worlds. The album featured old-school bluegrass and country players (Waylon Jennings, Del McCoury, Earl Scruggs), newgrass stars (Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas) and players from the jam-band crowd (Big Head Todd and the Monsters’ Todd Park Mohr, Widespread Panic’s John Bell, Blues Traveler’s John Popper).
But “The Nashville Sessions,” as noteworthy as it was, would be the last Leftover album on Hollywood Records. The band went through significant changes: Drummer Michael Wooten had left before the album was recorded; bassist Tye North would leave soon after. Worse, banjoist Vann became sick with cancer and died in the spring of 2002. All of the slots were filled – the current lineup features drummer Jose Martinez, bassist Greg Garrison and banjoist Noam Pickelny, plus keyboardist Bill McKay – but the membership shuffle meant little attention was paid to getting in the studio. Last year Leftover released a live CD, recorded with Vann in 2001 and named “Live,” pronounced as the verb form of the word in tribute to Vann. “Live” was released on Compass Records but marked the end of the relationship with the label.
Earlier this year, Leftover combined forces with the rock band Cracker to release “O Cracker, Where Art Thou?” The album, a collection of old Cracker songs with Leftover serving as the backing band for Cracker singers David Lowery and Johnny Hickman, was recorded over two days and released on Pitch-A-Tent records, a tiny Athens, Ga. label.
Leftover Salmon’s new CD, “Everything is Round,” was all set for a mid-October release, on the High Mountain label. The album, the first band-focused studio CD from Leftover in six years, seemed marked by ambition. Apart from one standard, “Whipping Waters,” which the band often performs live, “Everything Is Round” features all songs the band has not recorded before. For a producer, the band landed Little Feat’s Bill Payne, who is noted as a producer and session keyboardist as well for his long-running gig with Little Feat. The forthcoming release of the new album was even announced in a card packaged with the new CD by the Del McCoury Band, guaranteed to give “Everything Is Round” a boost in the bluegrass world.
But the business deal for the album fell through, leaving Leftover Salmon scratching their heads about what to do with the fresh tracks.
“It’s done and ready to go. But we don’t know when it’s going to come out. We might release it on our own,” said Vince Herman, Leftover Salmon’s founding singer, guitarist and frontman. “We were going for a kind of sophisticated record deal, because this is not our first rodeo.”
Herman remains upbeat about the album, hoping it gets released by year’s end. He believes Payne, who has jammed frequently with Leftover Salmon, has honed in on the band’s strengths.
“He really is very organized and concise with his musical arrangements,” said Herman, a Pittsburgh-area product who lives in Nederland. “He’s got the good systematic thinking mind. He’s so really focused on getting soul, real feeling, into the music, and not so concerned with perfection. He helped us get a record that felt good.”
For Herman, making albums is mostly about getting a snapshot of a band whose membership has changed and whose sound has evolved steadily over 13 years. “Everything is Round” is no different: it is the first CD, apart from the Cracker collaboration, to feature the current Leftover lineup.
“We’re not the type of band who puts out a record every nine months or a year,” he said. “There’s always a lot of evolution between our albums. A record is as much a reflection of what you’re doing now as what you’re going to be doing in the future.”
Of the early CDs, Herman said he doesn’t intentionally listen to them. “But when I do accidentally get them in my ears, it’s so surprising,” he said. “It’s so different from where we are now. But there’s nothing on them that grates me. I can stand to listen to them.”
Herman acknowledges that “The Nashville Sessions” were a recording high point. But he says that CD, too, caught the band at a particular moment.
“It was the highlight of that phase of things,” he said. “It seems like a long time ago, during the Mark Vann era, which is kind of a separate entity in itself. But it’s a highlight, our musical fantasy island.”
“Everything is Round” is about finally capturing Leftover Salmon in its current incarnation. While Pickelny joined the band early this year – after the band went through a long period of rotating guest banjoists – Garrison, Martinez and McKay have been part of Leftover Salmon for over two years. The new CD focuses on the band, with guest appearances limited to Payne and a guest vocal by K.C. Groves. “This record, it was good to get back to ourselves and do our own record,” said Herman. “It’s a whole new thing.”
However “Everything is Round” pans out, it is unlikely to alter the essence of Leftover Salmon as a band that makes its music live. In particular, Leftover comes alive on the festival stage, where guest players are as much of a given as Herman’s shouts of “festivaaaaaal!”
Leftover Salmon has become an every-year participant at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and California’s High Sierra Festival. For several years they have even staged their own Salmonfest, but shelved it this summer because of increased competition from the Bonnaroo festival and the return of both Phish and the Dead. Before arriving in at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival, where they open the proceedings on Saturday, Aug. 30, and are featured at the Snowmass Conference Center that night, Leftover Salmon plays the Mogollon Jamfest in Sedona, Ariz., for two days. After, they head to Seattle’s Bumbershoot.
After the festival season subsides, the band begins the Under the Influence Tour, which pairs Leftover Salmon with the Del McCoury Band for a long series of dates, ending on Halloween at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium. And even those shows will have a festival feel, with a night of acoustic and electric sets capped by the two bands getting together in front of one microphone.
“We started at a festival, down there at Telluride, and that’s what we do all the time,” said Herman. “Festivals are where people can turn it all up together, and that’s what music is for. Festivals are the epitome of giving people a chance to do that.”
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