Salmon steaks, over easy

With a new drummer, Leftover Salmon hits the road and readies new album

Leftover Salmon, including new drummer Alwyn Robinson, right
Photo by Susan J. Weland

There was a great moment captured on a YouTube video a few weeks ago as Leftover Salmon was tearing into one of their new tunes, a grassy Andy Thorn-penned bit called “High Country,” at the Loveless Café in Nashville. Salmon was on the third leg of a fall tour that wheeled them through Music City, and about halfway through the song, some of the otherwise long-sleeved, politely seated crowd and got up to the front of the venue and started boogying the Appalachia two-step.

Nothing new about folks getting up to shake their bones at a Salmon gig, but you couldn’t help but flash back to “big festival” Salmon, ripping slamgrass madness to crowds of tanning and margarita-lubed 20-somethings bonking beach balls to and fro under cerulean Telluride skies.

For about three minutes, Nashville gained about 8,000 feet in elevation.

“That was a great moment,” recalls mandolin player Drew Emmitt, “because we were the closing band that night. I think there were three other bands before us, and nobody had gotten up to dance until that moment. It was just really great to see that. … It’s been great, the whole tour, we’re just lovin’ it.”

Salmon has been clocking miles at an almost mid-’90s pace this past year, following up on their renaissance release Aquatic Hitchhiker from about a year and a half ago. “High Country” is one of four new tunes the band has unleashed this year in a release project with Breckenridge Brewery (they are also available now on iTunes), including the rousing Vince Herman number “Get Up and Go,” the furious banjo number “Thornpipe” and Emmitt’s polished, expansive “Two Highways.” The four new bits are likely the precursor to a new Salmon CD due for release sometime next year.

The band called in Hitchhiker producer (and longtime Los Lobos keyboardist) Steve Berlin to work the new material — well and good, but where in the world did they find the time to crank these out?

“We played three nights at the Bluebird last spring,” explains Emmitt, “kind of an intimate thing, so we ended up doing that, and we booked a week of studio time around those shows. And you know, that studio time was booked and we had no freakin’ idea what we were going to do with it.”

Isn’t that the way Berlin likes to work?

“It is. That’s pretty much the same way we did Aquatic Hitchhiker as well,” Emmitt says. “But somehow we managed to scare up 10 original tunes. It all just kind of came out of the ether. … We’re actually going to do a little more recording. We have some studio time booked in Aspen in February, at [Great Divide Studios], which is a really nice facility. So we’re going to head up for a little late-season skitown playin’ and get in and do two or three more tunes then.”

And count the new guy in. After 12 years holding down the drum seat, Jose Martinez finally packed it in a few months ago to play locally near his home in Seattle, and Salmon recruited Texas native Alwyn Robinson to replace him (banjoist Andy Thorn can now grin confidently that he’s not the new guy anymore). 

Classically trained and hailing originally from Marshall, Texas, Robinson has gigged locally with Ron Miles and Megan Burtt.

“I think Jose had been worn out for a while,” observes Emmitt. “He was great and he was with us for a long time, but he just wasn’t a fan of the road. … Y’know, it’s always tough when you have to replace a member like that, but we’re lovin’ our new drummer, Alwyn. He’s young, he’s got great energy, he’s got great chops.”

From what we’ve seen, Robinson has a great feel for the bluegrass stuff. Drumming against a bluegrass canvas (which, unlike rock music, was never meant to have drums in the first place) can be a fiendishly delicate matter. Salmon has long blurred the lines between the idioms, but slamgrass isn’t the kind of discipline they teach in percussion school.

“Absolutely,” Emmitt says. “And the other great thing is that he doesn’t play too loud. So it’s really kind of created a lot more space in the music and more dynamics, instead of just balls-to-the-wall, all the time. So it feels like a really solid unit. And especially after all this touring, we’ve really worked him in and now he just about knows all our songs, which is quite an undertaking. So it’s good, we have our whole repertoire back and we can play some of our old stuff, and mix it up.”

“He’s got all the skills you’d ever want to have as a drummer,” Salmon guitarist Vince Herman says. “Picks up on grooves really quick, just really locks in. Makes for a really good rhythm section, we’re really enjoying playing with him.”

Flashing back again, we had to ask Herman about “Get Up and Go.” It seemed like not so long ago, when Salmon was exhausted from the road and still trying to heal from the loss of Mark Vann, we chatted with Herman about hanging the fish up and diving into Great American Taxi, spending a little more time on songwriting and a little less watching the miles slip by from a window on the bus. It seemed back then that Herman, at least as much, if not more than, the rest of the band, just wanted some home time. Hearing him belting out “It’s a good day to do a little travelin’ / It’ a good time to get up and gone” almost sounded as if Herman had squared his widely arcing circle with the road life.

Well, maybe.

“Ironically, I wrote that for a friend of mine who had been in a really nasty car crash and was taking a long time to recover,” Herman says. “So we went and captured her for the weekend. Took her out to the shore, gave her a little break from her kids and kind of let her reinvent herself. I grabbed an hour while we were out there and wrote that one.”

To much deserved fanfare (“Bye bye, Mr. Nederland Pie,” as announced by a local newspaper), Herman packed up last year and moved to Oregon, satisfying a longtime desire to own some land and do a little homesteading on his off time.

“Well, the lettuce is kind of on hold right now,” laughs Herman. “We’re trying to figure out a greenhouse to put up for the winter right now. … It’s so different, living at 1,000 feet instead of over 9,000 feet, y’know? I’m so learning so much, but it’s really been great.”

We wondered if it reminded him of his native western Pennsylvania/ Allegheny Mountain region.

“Yeah, a little bit. The culture is really different, but the hills kind of remind me of that,” Herman says. “I’m in the heart of the Siskiyou Mountains, not real tall, kind of West Virginia-ish. We’re really lovin’ getting’ to know the place. I used to read a lot of Thoreau, y’know? I read Wendell Berry and people like that, talking about a place, and really getting to know it.”

But it’s not all gentleman-farming for Herman.

“Yeah, I’m kind of out in the sticks, but there also happens to be a world-class recording studio a couple of miles from my house [The Studio at Pacifica]. … It was a studio that Steve Miller built for the Fly Like An Eagle record back in the 1970s. It sat empty for a long time, and a friend of mine has revived it. … So the plan is to spend some time there producing records; I’m doing the first one in February. It’s really a dream come true, this amazing studio in the middle of all this farmland.”

Leftover Salmon (with special guest Bill Payne of Little Feat) plays the Boulder Theater on Friday, Nov. 29, and Saturday, Nov. 30. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $29.50. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.