As Leftover Salmon prepares for its massive block party in Denver to celebrate the release of Aquatic Hitchhiker, its seventh studio album and its first since the band went on hiatus in 2005, a look at the band’s 22-year history provides some insight into the group’s staying power.
Co-founders Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman met in 1985 after Herman moved to Boulder, and the two combined their two groups, The Left Hand String Band and The Salmon Heads, for a 1989 gig in Crested Butte and haven’t looked back since.
Though the band has weathered lineup changes, the time demands of new projects, and the tragic death of founding banjo player Mark Vann, the joyous music and carefree spirit that has defined the band for two decades has stayed refreshingly constant.
Nowhere is that more clear than on the first track of Leftover Salmon Celebrating 20 Years, a compilation of live recordings released on jambase.com in 2009. The track, a cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun,” is from a 1991 performance at the late and somewhat storied Boulder venue J.J. McCabe’s. It’s a long-lost relic predating the band’s first disc, and the performance is a high-energy affair that, in retrospect, might as well be the band’s manifesto.
The band (which at this point consisted of Emmitt, Herman, Vann, accordion player Gerry Cavagnaro, drummer Michael Wooten and bassist Rob Galloway) plays the cover pretty faithfully for the first couple of verses. Then, suddenly, the drums cut out and Herman starts a spoken-word creed filled with local imagery, delivering a tale of existential debate in wild vocal inflections.
“My girlfriend, she’s always telling me, ‘Why don’t you drive to Denver and get a real job?’” Herman rants.
He follows up with a sarcastic response.
“I think what I really have in mind is maybe a position as a ski bum in some mountain town where you can wake up and do a big wake-and-bake and ski all day!”
Whoops of appreciation come up from the crowd.
“And she’s like, ‘Well, you’ve been doing that for so many years now, and where’s that got ya? All you do now is run around and have fun!’ “And I said, ‘Listen, baby, if that’s what you got in mind for your man, I think maybe you best better look up an ad in Westword or something like that, because it ain’t me that you’re looking for, man,” he says, building into a fever pitch. “I ain’t got no ambition man, I just want to do those wake-and-bakes! I don’t want to fuck off, man, I wanna play tunes! I wanna have a good time!”
Then he sings the triumphant final chorus of the song: “Let me go out, like a blister in the sun / Let me go out / I just wanna be a ski bum!”
And though no one can accuse Herman of being a bum of any sort — he has played thousands of shows in his decades-long career — the spirit of the screed remains true to Leftover Salmon to this day. The band still has that ski bum spirit: an uncompromising commitment to doing what you love in life, and a refusal to compromise the values that define who you are.
That independent streak helped Leftover Salmon define the jamgrass genre now populated by bands like Yonder Mountain String Band and others. Herman’s eclectic interest in ethnic music combined with Emmitt’s bluegrass traditionalist sensibilities in a way that had never really been done before, creating what the band early on dubbed as “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass.” Elements of calypso, Cajun music and reggae populate the band’s bluegrass-based numbers, propelled equally by energetic rock drummers and slamming, traditional bluegrass banjo.
The band has included a slew of notable supporting cast members that have rotated in throughout the years, including drummer Wooten (who played with Carole King), bassist Tye North (who went on to play with Darol Anger and others) and keyboardist Bill McKay, among others, but the core of the group was the chemistry between Emmitt, Herman and Vann. When Vann died of melanoma in 2002, the band soldiered on and produced a self-titled disc in 2004 with banjo player Noam Pikelny, but things weren’t the same. The band decided it needed a break. Bassist Greg Garrison told Billboard at the time that once the band made the decision to go on hiatus, the group instantly started sounding better.
So the members put Salmon in the fridge and took up other projects. Herman formed Great American Taxi and later hooked up with Todd Snider; Emmitt teamed with The String Cheese Incident’s Bill Nershi to form the Emmitt-Nershi Band; Garrison joined Emmitt-Nershi and the Punch Brothers as he worked on his doctorate in jazz studies.
In short, the band members kept busy, but it was only 27 months before the band reunited for a show at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, euphemistically billed as “Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman and Friends.”
From then on, Salmon played a few one-off dates a year. But as side projects wound down, a full-fledged Salmon reunion started sounding better and better. Emmitt-Nershi banjo player Andy Thorn had sat in a few times, and the chemistry was palpable. Herman realized the band might have found its missing link.
“He’s just been a really great boost to the energy and the whole project. We kind of felt like we were missing a leg once mark passed,” Herman told Boulder Weekly in November. “Andy has been a real find, makes it feel real good again. And he’s a ball to hang with, and just a phenomenal player.”
Thorn was thrilled to join the band. Just 29, he hadn’t even picked up a banjo by the time Leftover Salmon played its first show, but he has accomplished a lot during his short career. At the age of 19 he won the banjo contest at Rockygrass. A friend introduced him to Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters, who introduced him to Emmitt. From there, he was asked to sit in with Leftover Salmon, and they soon asked him to join.
With the newfound chemistry and enthusiasm in mind, Herman, Garrison, Thorn (and Emmitt, via Herman’s iPhone) gathered at Thorn’s North Boulder house to talk about Aquatic Hitchhiker, which occupies the same free-spirited, everything-is-groovy musical zone as their previous albums.
The disc is the first full-length made by the band since 2004, and it marks another first for the band as well — the first Salmon album to be released on vinyl, the thought of which tickled the band members pink.
“Oh man, everything’s different now that Tupac just played Coachella, you know?” Herman says. “Seriously, what are the implications of this? We were talking about this a lot last night. And one of my friends said that the guy who’s programming that hologram isn’t Tupac. So it’s spiritually removed.
And that’s kind of what digital music does. It’s a little bit spiritually removed.
And if you take this stuff far enough, we can sit at home on our couch and beam in our hologram to wherever the live show is. I was watching that with [Grateful Dead drummer] Bill Kreutzmann in New Orleans, and he was like, ‘I could play with Jerry [Garcia] again.’ I mean, how weird does it get? So what part of that whole slide towards soulless digitalization of our culture, how much of that is prevented by someone putting out a piece of vinyl?”
Steve Berlin of Los Lobos produced the album, and after about two weeks of recording, the album was finished. Seems pretty quick, right?
“Not in this day and age,” Garrison says, laughing.
“That’s kind of a luxurious time frame. … We had a lot of time just to mess around in the studio and try different things.”
“And we have a couple of extra songs,” Herman chimes in, plugging the documentary Salmonlandia, available on iclips.com, which catalogues the making of the album. “You know, you have to do something more than just put out a recording of you playing songs these days to really kind of make it an event, as is the street festival, which I’m just delirious about.”
The actual recording process might have been a luxurious process, but the album percolated for awhile before becoming a reality. Starting with the first reunion shows in 2007 and culminating with the addition of Thorn in 2010, it took a few years for the stars to align just right to produce conditions that led to the new album.
“We got back together for just a few shows in 2007, and we started doing festivals and one-offs. And I think in the last year or so we really felt like it was time … to make the band for real again. It seemed like the best way to make that happen, and to really show the world that Leftover Salmon was back, was to go back in the studio. … The more we talked about it, the more we got excited and started putting together tunes, and it all just came together last fall.”
Herman and Emmitt say the time apart allowed the members to approach the new album with fresh perspectives influenced by time spent collaborating with other musicians.
“I think it really opens your eyes to different ways of writing and kind of breaks you out of your box,” Emmitt says. “I think it’s been really great for the band as a whole for us to do these different projects. I definitely think it’s brought a new perspective to Salmon.”
“It was really cool,” Herman says. “I think all the side projects that we’ve done have really brought us into the studio with kind of bigger ears, and a real more comfortable, less deer-in-theheadlights kind of feeling, at least for myself.”
At this point Herman reaches into his pocket and pulls out four lighters. “Wow, that’s really cool,” he mumbles with a grin, and passes one out to everyone in the room as he continues.
“I think we all really got comfortable. And the writing process was really cool and collaborative,” he says over the sounds of lighters flicking in the background. “We just all felt real comfortable with the process.”
The festival (Sunday, May 13, in Denver’s Santa Fe Art District) is another first for the band, which has never before thrown a block party. They hope to draw as many casual fans as hardcore ones. The goal? Build a sense of community in an increasingly fractured world.
“To me it conjures up old images of the Grateful Dead in San Francisco or something, where street music just caused really good things to happen,” Herman says. “You know, it’s going to be a wild summer in Denver, and we gotta take it to the streets, man, you know? It’s Occupy Denver summer. We’re gonna occupy this street, it’s going to be really fun.”
Herman pauses, then continues. “You know, we have to,” he says. “In an era where strange, police-state kind of things are really happening, people have to get out to the streets to reinforce the fact that we’re alive and happy to be alive and aren’t going to cave in to the forces of evil around us in all places! We must conquer through music!” And the funny thing is, he’s only half-joking. Not bad for a ski bum with an independent streak.
Correction: A paragraph that incorrectly identified members of Leftover Salmon has been fixed.