“I was the lead guitar player,” explains Drew Emmitt, “and he always told me that he didn’t want to sound like me at all. He wanted his rock sound to be different. So he never used any sustain or distortion or anything like that. That was my thing. So he just kind of kept it clean. And loud.”
And eight years since Mark passed from melanoma, the instrument has passed into the hands of Yonder Mountain String Band’s banjoist, Dave Johnston.
The comparisons are irresistible, of course — two bands associated with Boulder, inspired by Telluride, fusing classic and original song-craft atop highly charged string-band sensibilities, bluegrass and country and folk juiced by the slam of rock dynamics and tempered by the small-stage intimacies of front porch Appalachia, and daring the purists not to dance.
While Salmon as a franchise enjoys a comfortable semi-retirement, Yonder is in full throttle in the early innings of their second decade with the original quartet still intact, headlining festivals (including their own North West String Summit) and selling out venues across the nation, still staging material from their earliest days together and their luminous first two albums (e.g. “Loved You Enough” and “Forty Miles From Denver” both popping up in set lists within the last month), and occupying that enviable place where they can compartmentalize the live shows and the studio recordings, where neither has to validate the other. Their last three studio releases all went to No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass charts.
The band’s fifth studio recording, released last year as The Show, found the quartet reunited with producer Tom Rothrock (Beck, Foo Fighters) and Elvis Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas sitting in on about half the tracks, a continuation of the genre-dissolving sessions that resulted in their eponymously titled CD of 2006, broadening their exposure to a world outside their festival base, teasing at mainstream recognition with drums and production values absent from their Mountain Tracks series of live show recordings.
“We’ve always wanted to create music based on what we wanted to do, and not based necessarily on what everyone else wants us to play,” says Yonder guitarist Adam Aijala. “Our live show is our live show, and that’s evolved well over time. … [But] in the studio, there is no crowd there, and it’s our chance to be creative in a different way, a more thoughtful creativity simply because you have more time. I mean, we’re good on the spur-of-the-moment stuff as well, I think that’s maybe why we’ve had so much success.”
There’s a certain dichotomy you sense in talking to Aijala about the band’s success. Part of it is complete confidence that he and the others don’t have to tangle with bluegrass traditionalists or craft their shows around preset expectations (covers from the Allman Brothers to Michael Jackson, the Dead to Talking Heads), and the other part is honest appreciation at what the band has managed to accomplish in 10 years.
“I had made a lot of short-term goals of what I wanted to accomplish, the first being able to actually pay my bills,” Aijala laughed. “But I had so much faith in these guys (bassist Ben Kaufmann, banjoist Johnston and mandolinist Jeff Austin), these guys are so unique in their own way and so good in their own way. [Getting together] just felt like such a good thing to do, and while I had so much confidence that we would do well, I had no idea that it would come to this. And we’re nowhere close to being done.”
And as for the guys from Leftover Salmon, Aijala has plenty of props to hand out.
“They paved a road of sorts on the Colorado music scene for a band like us to come along,” he says. “And not only did they do that before we formed, but I can’t say enough about the support the guys gave to us when we started. Putting in a good word at festivals, like ‘Hey you should hire these guys; they’re really good,’ and for all the opening spots.”
“They’ve done a huge thing as a string band,” Leftover’s Emmitt says. “They definitely remind me of how we were in a lot of ways, except for the rock ’n’ roll thing, keeping it all acoustic, which is quite a feat I think.”
Leftover Salmon is the band that no one could keep down. When Mark lost his battle with cancer in 2002, Salmon struggled toward a decision to keep going.
“I was definitely one of the proponents of stopping,” Emmitt says. “I had been talking about it for a while. After Mark passed, y’know, we kept the band going, and Noam [Pikelny] had done well on the banjo, but it really felt like it was time for a break. We needed to stop touring, we needed to reassess where we were, we needed to do our own thing for a while. And it was timely when we stopped and went our separate ways for a while, and it was really the best thing we could have done.”
Leftover’s Vince Herman went on to immerse himself in Great American Taxi, which remains his main gig today. Emmitt teamed up with String Cheese Incident’s Bill Nershi for a bluegrass ’n’ blues collaboration that also continues to this day, and heads his own bluegrass band as well.
But it was at Telluride in June 2007 where Yonder’s Austin introduced a “Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman and Friends” gig with the line, “No matter what the program says, we all know what’s going on here.”
Salmon then booked a handful of shows during 2007 and 2008, and then did a run of shows in 2009 to celebrate their 20-year anniversary, a milestone also marked by a lengthy retrospective of live shows between 1991 and 2009 assembled by their manager, John Joy.
“The idea started when I was planning a multi-piece feature to run on jambase.com,” explains Joy. “I wanted to give the fans something and I also wanted to get the attention of jambase. com music fans that may not be that familiar with Salmon and its history. This is where I got the idea to give out tracks with marquee guests that had played with the band over the years. This was also a good way to get these live tracks out that would probably never get approved to be a release for sale.”
With their anniversary behind them and their respective careers solidly in place, Salmon is now surfing a serial reunion, a comfortable place for the principals to return to when the planets align just right and their respective schedules find common openings.
A little like grabbing a quick coffee downtown with the ex-wife … who’s just a friend now.
“It feels real good,” Emmitt says. “I think it’s still a special thing for a lot of people when we get together, but it’s not like a big, big deal. It just seems like a relaxed, kind of fun thing now.”
ON THE BILL:
Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon play Red Rocks Amphitheater on Friday, Aug. 27. Doors at 5 p.m. Split Lip Rayfield open. 18300 W.
Alameda Pkwy., Morrison, 720- 865-2494.
Great American Taxi plays NedFest on Saturday, Aug. 28, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $49.99 for one day, $99.99 for two days.
For more information, visit www.nedfest.com.