Strum Together

Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon bring strings and things to Red Rocks

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Dave Kirby

It`s a thing of rare beauty, even if the rest of the guys called it
“the Stump.” But slung across Mark Vann’s shoulder, the wooden-bodied
banjo infused an elastic metallurgy to Leftover Salmon’s unique alchemy
of rock, bluegrass and Cajun.

“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.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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.