Plugging in and out, and crossing bridges
It’s a good thing Drew Emmitt comes out of the school of improvised music.When Emmitt last played Aspen, in January at the Wheeler Opera House, the singer and string ace was all about the acoustic instruments. Having put to rest Leftover Salmon, the Colorado-based jam band he co-led for 14 years, Emmitt was happy to kiss goodbye the electrified guitar, mandolin and fiddle he had become accustomed to plugging in. Speaking of the all-acoustic Drew Emmitt Band he was about to bring to Aspen last winter, Emmitt said in an interview with The Aspen Times, “I wanted it to be different from Leftover Salmon. And if we had a drummer and I brought my electric guitar, it would have been similar.”The all-acoustic, all-the-time concept seems to be coming to its end. Emmitt’s appearance at Carbondale’s Summer of Music Series, Saturday, Aug. 27, from 5-9 p.m. on the Fourth Street Plaza, will feature a variation on the combo that played the Wheeler: Emmitt, guitarist Ross Martin and bassist Greg Garrison, with banjoist Chris Pandolfi, who has been touring with Emmitt all summer, replacing Matt Flinner, the band’s original banjo player.Farther down the line, though, is a louder sound. In the fall, Emmitt is expecting to have Jeff Sipe, a former Leftover Salmon drummer, join the band. With Sipe – known as Apt. Q-258 during his days in Col. Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit – pounding the skins, Emmitt will start packing his electric guitar again. Garrison, no doubt, will lean more on his electric bass rather than his stand-up bass fiddle. Adding to the shuffle, Martin is likely to be replaced by another guitarist, and Pandolfi will be a part-time member of the group.
That leaves Emmitt a good ways from the ideal he held seven months ago. But it is a realistic reaction to the combination of audience expectations, the venues he is booked into and the unstable nature of the touring business.”It’s the world of revolving musicians,” said Emmitt by cell phone, as he drove from his home in Crested Butte to a gig in Seattle. “It’s just how it is, especially when people are prone to wanting to do different projects. We’re looking at forming a band that will be more solid, with people who really want to do this.”Emmitt takes comfort that his lack of band stability puts him in good company. He points to Sam Bush and John Cowan, both of whom were in New Grass Revival, the progressive acoustic band that Emmitt reveres, as musicians even more established than himself who keep a rotating roster of sidemen.It’s also the world of fan expectations. For 14 years with Leftover Salmon, Emmitt played a brand of music dubbed polyethnic Cajun slamgrass that had bits of bluegrass, country, blues and zydeco – but almost always put a jamming, electric spin on those ingredients. “A lot of people have been wanting to hear the electric guitar again,” noted Emmitt.And it’s also the world of stages that are not always friendly to acoustic music. “We end up doing a lot of bars and theaters, places where you need some electricity,” he said. “If every gig could be an arts center, that would be great. But it’s not. So we’re going to give it a little more juice.”Emmitt said he expects to mix acoustic shows into his schedule, when the venues and players line up right. But he has found that full-time touring as a bluegrass quartet isn’t an easy thing to make viable.
Meanwhile, on the recorded side of things, Emmitt last month released “Across the Bridge.” Oddly enough, it is his first all-acoustic recording since his days in the Left Hand String Band, a predecessor of Leftover Salmon.”Across the Bridge” shows that Emmitt isn’t lacking for the skills to make a go at being an acoustic picker. Featuring the original version of Emmitt’s band – Garrison, Martin and Flinner – plus a host of guests, mostly form the bluegrass world, the album is a fine demonstration of songwriting, group interplay and reinterpreting older material.”I wanted to make a really good acoustic record, get some of my bluegrass buddies on it,” said Emmitt, who is joined by Bush and Cowan, Del and Ronnie McCoury, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and Little Feat frontman Paul Barrere, who sings lead on a slowed-down, jazzed-up version of Feat’s “All That You Dream.” “I wanted it without drums, and to stay connected to the bluegrass world.”The album features a countrified take on Dylan’s bluesy “Meet Me in the Morning”; the very bluegrassy “This House,” which Emmitt co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale; and the newgrass fiddle instrumental “Silvante.” But the centerpiece is “Cross That Bridge,” which Emmitt co-wrote with Colorado songsmith Benny Galloway. The ballad speaks of what has been left behind and what lies ahead, taking things in their own time.”It was the time of a big change,” said Emmitt, a Nashville native who had picked up piano, ukelele and guitar before moving to Colorado in his early teens. “It was crossing over into a different mode, getting away from Leftover Salmon.”And bridges have always been significant to us.” (Leftover Salmon’s first album was titled “Bridges to Bert,” a band term for spanning different styles of music.)
Emmitt’s latest crossing seems to be a bit of backtracking. If his group comes together as planned, with Sipe and Garrison, three fourths of the Drew Emmitt Band will be former Salmon players.”There will be some similarities,” said Emmitt. “The main thing that will be different will be not having Vince Herman” – Leftover Salmon’s co-founder and co-frontman – “doing his crazy stuff. It will be more geared toward the music than the crazy party atmosphere.”For Emmitt, though, going all the way back is an impossibility. Mark Vann, Leftover Salmon’s founding banjo player, died of cancer in 2002. The band carried on for a few years, using a series of pickers to replace Vann. And while the group recovered musically, it never really seemed to do likewise in spirit.”There’s aspects I miss,” said Emmitt of his old band. “But by and large, it’s good to have a change. It became so hard to keep it together. It’s especially hard when a key members passes away.”I especially miss the old camaraderie of the old days.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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Max Weintraub has been senior curator at the Aspen Art Museum since January 2019.