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Leftover Salmon: Still Fresh
The ragtag maniacs are back
Leftover Salmon, that band of rambunctious, rocking revivalists, are back in town for a show at Track 29 on Thursday, April 25.
The band’s co-founder and ace mandolin player, Drew Emmitt, in an interview with JamBase, called the band a “ragtag bunch of maniacs.” From the moment he, guitarist Vince Herman, and the late banjo player Mark Vann joined forces in the late 1980s, they’ve been making it up on the fly. “There was no preconceived notion,” Emmitt told JamBase in the 2009 interview marking their 20 anniversary. “We never thought we’d go out and play and travel the country. We just wanted to go out and play and have fun.”
Growing up in Nashville, Emmitt absorbed a smorgasbord of musical influences, including Gordon Lightfoot, the Allman Brothers Band, Black Sabbath and Muddy Waters. Herman grew up in Pittsburgh, where he listened to a lot of Motown and doo-wop, but it was polka that made the biggest impression on him. He told an interviewer, “That’s just kind of what I grew up with in my ears, and I don’t see any reason to limit anything that you hear from coming out.”
Mark Vann developed a deep affection for bluegrass growing up in Rockville, Maryland. He came from a family where everyone played an instrument. His first band, formed when he was just 10, featured his brother Mike on mandolin, his dad on guitar, and his mother playing upright bass.
Vann was playing with Herman in a band called Salmon Heads in Boulder, Colorado when they met Emmitt who was in a band called The Left Hand String Band. Impressed by Vann’s lightning picking, he introduced himself. “Vince and I definitely had a chemistry going,” said Emmitt. “I thought something cool would happen.” It did, and for more than ten years they had a blast playing what they called “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass.”
Bassist and singer John Cowan was one of many drawn to the fun. “Leftover Salmon has always been a wondrous, curious mix of serious musicianship and the revelry of vaudeville, merry pranksters and carnival,” he told JamBase. “I think we—the audience/the world—need to laugh while our souls are being opened by heartfelt music. The obvious answer to this is that Salmon brought not only their own music with mandolin/fiddle/banjo but John Hartford, New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, etc. to kids who perhaps never would have had the access to it.”
But it all stopped as suddenly as it had started when in 2001, Vann was diagnosed with melanoma. He passed away six months later. The band continued playing for two more years with several gifted players taking Vann’s place, but it couldn’t last. “I think we were like a three-legged beast walking on two,” said Herman. “We had never quite gotten that balance back, and it was a struggle just changing personnel. We had never taken a break after he passed and we just said at one point it was time to give it a rest. It was too spiritually taxing. It had run its course.”
After a three-year hiatus, Emmitt and Herman began playing a few tentative gigs together, and before long they had put together a new line-up featuring the young banjo ace Andy Thorn. On recordings from their tour earlier this year (available for free on their website), they sound like Little Feat with a freewheeling banjo player and an electric mandolin player channeling Jerry Garcia. Herman, sounding like a cross between Jimmy Buffett and a psychedelicized Lawrence Welk, leads the band in a series of inspired mash-ups mixing Dead-style rockgrass with reggae, delta blues and rambunctious singalongs like “Boo Boo.” An uber-caffeinated Taj Mahal-style Caribbean-flavored free-for-all in which each of the members of the band gets a chance to strut, particularly drummer Jose Martinez and bass player Greg Garrison, songs like “Boo Boo” (there are several in their show) capture the band’s anarchic spirit at its best.
In the shows from last winter, they move swiftly from the lyrical island bounce into a fleet-fingered grassy shuffle with Andy Thorn leading until Herman steps in for a series of lightning-fast finger-picked guitar solos. Suddenly they sound like Garcia’s Old & In The Way on steroids; it’s hard-driving, muscular new grass with Thorn’s electric banjo flying through the mix scattering a blizzard of notes. But then the mood changes again as they shift into a languid swing reminiscent of Little Feat or The Band playing a Mississippi John Hurt-style good-time uptown boogaloo on a tune called “Red Rocking Chair.”
An evening with these guys is one long front-porch party, hosted by a band equally versed in every strain of American music, and with the chops to do it justice.