Leftover Salmon is back—re-energized and ready to play at Track 29 on Thursday, April 26. It’s been eight years since their last album, “Live”—and seven years since they made the decision to take an “indefinite hiatus.” The fire had gone out and playing was beginning to feel like a job, according to Vince Herman, the band’s guitarist and singer.
Herman, who has lived in Nederland, Colo., since the mid-1980s, moved to the Rockies from his native West Virginia in search of the kind of music played by Hot Rize. Formed in 1978, Hot Rize was one of the first bands to play what came to be called “progressive bluegrass.” Named for the active ingredient in Martha White flour, the band led by Tim O’Brien didn’t stray far from the roots, but they did mix some folk and pop with the three-finger banjo and three-part harmonies.
Herman found exactly what he was looking for when he got to Colorado.
“The day I arrived in Boulder,” Herman recalls on the band’s website, “we literally drove in … parked the car, (and) saw a sign (outside a local bar) that said ‘Bluegrass.’ ”
It was there that he first heard Leftover Salmon co-founder, mandolinist and fiddler, Drew Emmitt. Herman went on to form his own band, The Salmon Heads, but by 1989 he and Emmitt had joined forces in the band they called Leftover Salmon.
That same year banjo player Mark Vann moved to town intending to join Emmitt’s group, the Left Hand String Band, but wound up becoming the essential third voice in Leftover Salmon. The music Emmitt, Herman and Vann made together, according to Herman, owed as much to the Allman Brothers as it did to Bill Monroe.
From the minute Mark Vann joined the band everything had fallen into place. The chemistry between the three players was the essential ingredient that made the group greater than the sum of its parts. Vann, Emmitt and Herman were the heart of the band. Hot Rize and New Grass Revival may have been the pioneers who took bluegrass away from a strict adherence to its roots, but it was Leftover Salmon’s polyethnic Cajun slamgrass that brought bluegrass into rock ‘n’ roll. Throughout the 1990s, they were the darlings of the Grateful Dead-inspired jam band festivals.
But at the end of the decade, just as the band was beginning to move beyond its cult following, Mark Vann developed skin cancer. He passed away just before his 40th birthday leaving a huge hole in the group. They continued playing together with Noam Pikelny stepping in on banjo, but Vann’s death left the band adrift. What had been three friends having fun was turning into a job. The band splintered with Herman going off on his own with his band Great American Taxi, while Drew Emmitt formed an alliance with Bill Nershi, formerly the guitarist with String Cheese Incident.
Now, after several years spent playing with their own bands, Herman and Emmitt have reunited, and Leftover Salmon is back largely thanks to the playing of a young banjo player, Andy Thorn. “This is what we’ve been missing as far as that feeling between Drew, Mark and I that used to be there,” said Herman.
If you go to the group’s website, you can hear what he’s talking about on a track called “Consequence of Sound” from the forthcoming album, “Aquatic Hitchhiker.” A bristling instrumental, it fairly crackles with energy as Thorn sets the pace with a double time banjo break, followed by Emmitt first on mandolin and then on fiddle for a short, soaring solo. The two trade licks like men possessed. It is truly the sound of a band re-born.
$25 (advance) • $27 (door)
Thursday, April 26
Track 29 - 1400 Market St.
(423) 521-2929 - track29.co
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.