Return of the funky pluckers
A talk with founder Vince Hermann of Colorado slamgrass kings Leftover Salmon
Things have changed for Leftover Salmon since the group last visited Chico.
The Boulder, Colo., “jam band” that played with String Cheese Incident at the Chico Field of Dreams Sundown Festival in August 1998 has three new members. Not only that, the band was dealt some sobering news last November, when banjo player and founding member Mark Vann was diagnosed with skin cancer.
Still, the high-energy, self-described “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass” troubadours promise to turn the Senator Theater into a hedonistic, two-set tie-dye dance-fest Sunday night.
One part country, two parts Cajun and bluegrass, with some country-fried swamp rock thrown in, Leftover Salmon, new members and all, combines a traditional sound (think Bill Monroe) with contemporary open-ended jamming (think Phish). The result is a smorgasbord of sound delicacies.
Now more than a decade old, the band has earned its place near the top of the post-Grateful Dead jam band heap, alongside Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and moe. Rather than rely on a platinum album or VH-1 video (they have neither), Leftover Salmon has consistently wowed club and festival audiences in grass-roots fashion, earning fans one at a time, with quick picking, a communal spirit and an open-taping policy.
The band’s album Nashville Sessions (1999) included collaborations with Nashville’s Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush, blues veteran Taj Mahal, country singers Waylon Jennings and Lucinda Williams, as well as Blues Traveler’s John Popper.
”Nashville Sessions was a musical ‘Fantasy Island’ for us,” Herman said in a phone interview from his Nederland, Colo., home. “We put together a list of people we wanted to play with, and our producer, Randy Scruggs, arranged it.”
A new album, tentatively titled Live, is due out in the spring, Herman said.
Musically, Salmon relies on a fairly even mix of covers and original tunes, the bulk of which come from original founders Vince Herman (acoustic guitar, washboard, vocals) and Dave Emmitt (mandolin, fiddle, vocals, electric guitar) and, more recently, new keyboardist Bill McKay. Song titles capture the band’s fun and hijinks: “Funky Mountain Fogdown,” “Dance on Your Head,” “Euphoria” and “Rise Up—Wake and Bake.”
The band supplements its originals with myriad old, traditional favorites, such as “Deep Elem Blues,” “Nine Pound Hammer” and “Sitting on Top of the World.” More-contemporary covers include “Rocky Mountain Way” and the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.”
“We don’t hesitate to pull tunes out of that deep pool of Americana and use it to our own ends,” Herman said with a chuckle. He then mentioned the influence of Harry Smith, who lived out his final years in Boulder, and his anthology of American folk music.
“He was pretty much attributed with causing the folk scare of the 1960s, when people thought (apprehensively) that it was going to be the mainstream. He was a beatnik and ravenous music collector. He turned people on to the depth of the Americana well.”
In addition to music, Leftover Salmon champions environmental and wildlife issues. Band members are involved with the Worldwatch Institute (www.worldwatch.org), a group formed to inform policymakers and the public about emerging global problems.
“One of the first areas we toured was the Northwest and California,” he said, “and because of our name and the people who come to see us being pretty environmentally aware, we saw an opportunity to get the information out. It’s a great chance—the community can come out and see the show and together we can get some things done with the energy we harness.
“Probably our greatest contribution, in terms of community building,” he continued, “is the unifying force of dancing and having a good time together and sprinkling in info that will influence the larger area where the community gathers.”
Regarding the cancer-stricken Vann, Herman said that while he played with the band on several songs at its New Year’s Eve gig in Denver, he wouldn’t take to the road this tour. But Vann’s on-stage shoes should be capably filled this tour by Jeff Mosier.
Like every other act that toured last September, Leftover Salmon was affected by the events of Sept. 11.
“It was a crazy tour. Out of the 10 shows, we were a whole band for two or three,” Herman said. “Planes couldn’t get places. We actually played Sept. 13, in Lubbock, Texas. We couldn’t imagine getting up there on-stage.
“But once the music started, and we realized the power and comfort of it, and realized that there’s a whole lot of love in the world and in the end love wins, it helped pull us through and reorganize the world in our heads."