Looking back over the past 25 years of rootsy, Americana, string-based music, the impact of Leftover Salmon is impossible to deny. Formed in Boulder, CO in 1989 the group was one of the first bluegrass bands to add drums and tour rock & roll bars, helping Salmon become a pillar of the jam band scene and unwitting architects of the jam grass genre.
Though the band members are reticent to accept the weight of their influence, Leftover Salmon co-founder, singer, guitarist, fiddle and mandolin player Drew Emmitt does reflect fondly on the band’s early days. “We knew we were doing something special” he says. “At that point in the early-90′s, it was the birth of the jam band movement, Phish was starting out, Widespread Panic was starting out, and they were a little ahead of us, obviously, but we were one of the first bands to get out there with bluegrass and just get on the road and try to make something happen without a record deal. We were just following in the footsteps of New Grass Revival, Hot Rize and Little Feat, but by doing that I think we inspired some other bands too.”
If Salmon had never played another note after the devastating death of banjo player/co-founder Mark Vann in 2002, the legacy would have been secure; the members’ names etched in the books of history. But today, more than two decades after Salmon first took shape, the band has a new album (Aquatic Hitchhiker, due May 22 on LoS Records), a new banjo phenom (Andy Thorn), and a new lease on an old agreement. Leftover Salmon is officially back.
The legend of Leftover Salmon begins in October 1985 when band leader, co-founder, singer, guitarist and washboard player Vince Herman left his home in Morgantown, WV with a buddy in search of that Rocky Mountain High. “The day that I arrived in Boulder” recalls Herman, “we literally drove in off the highway, parked the car, saw a sign at a bar that said ‘Bluegrass’, went in there and it was Drew playing with the Left Hand String Band; like the moment we got to town.”
Some would call this fate, others coincidence, either way this moment would change the lives of Herman, Emmitt and a whole lot of other people. A few years later Herman had established his own group, the Salmon Heads, and on New Year’s Eve 1989 he asked Left Hand String Band members Emmitt and bassist Glen Keefe to fill in for some missing Salmon Heads. They took the name Leftover Salmon and the group played its first show at The El Dorado Café in Crested Butte, CO. A few months later revolutionary electric banjo player Mark Vann moved toColoradoto join the Left Hand String Band and was quickly pulled into Leftover Salmon as well. Though the lineup would change through the years to include such luminaries as drummers Michael Wooten (1989-1997) and Jeff Sipe (1997-2000, 2007-2010), bassists Keefe (1989–1991) and Tye North (1993–2000), accordion and harmonic player Gerry Cavagnaro (1990-1991), keyboard players Bill McKay (2000-2011) and Joe Jogerst (1991-1993), the core of Leftover Salmon was always rooted in the relationship between Herman, Emmitt and Vann.
Leftover Salmon delivered its debut album; “Bridges to Bert” in 1993, and followed it up with the live album “Ask The Fish” in 1995, both of which helped land the group a spot on the influential H.O.R.D.E. tour. With the band’s stock on the rise and their Colorado slamgrass style firmly established, they signed to Hollywood Records and released what many consider to be the definitive Salmon record, 1997’s ‘Euphoria”. The band would go on to release four more albums, each unique in its own way, none more so than 1999’s “The Nashville Sessions” which placed Salmon alongside some of its biggest influences and most beloved colleagues, including Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Widespread Panic’s John Bell, Blues Traveler’s John Popper, Earl Scruggs, Waylon Jennings and Lucinda Williams.
On March 4, 2002, at age 39, Mark Vann lost his battle with cancer. Vann insisted that the band carry on and Salmon enlisted Noam Pikelny to assume the banjo role, keeping the flame lit through endless tours and several more albums, including 2002’s Live (pronounced “liv”), a live album released shortly after Vann’s death and the last record he ever performed on; Live also featured the new rhythm section of Jose Martinez (drums) and Greg Garrison (bass), both of whom remain members of the group to this day. The following year the band released “O Cracker, Where Art Thou? “ which found Salmon backing Cracker’s David Lowery and Johnny Hickman, and 2004 would see the release of Leftover Salmon, the first post-Vann Salmon studio effort.
On New Year’s Eve 2005, exactly 15 years to the day since Leftover Salmon’s very first show, the band desperately needed a break and made arrangements for an indefinite hiatus. The big NYE concert felt like a conclusion, perhaps a proper ending to a very influential, dare we say important and just damn fun band. “The reality is Leftover Salmon is what we did for a living” says Herman. “We had families and we kind of had to keep feeding the beast, and the toll of that spiritually on the music was audible, so we had to pause to do other things and really get more in touch with ourselves as musicians and find out what direction we would go outside of Salmon.”
Herman created Great American Taxi and Emmitt a solo outfit (Drew Emmitt Band) as well as the Emmitt-Nershi Band with The String Cheese Incident’s Billy Nershi. There were a few Leftover Salmon reunion shows here and there starting with some festival engagements in 2007, but as the years went by and solo careers took off it appeared that Leftover Salmon, at least a fully-engaged Leftover Salmon, was a thing of the past.
Then something unexpected happened. During one of those reunion runs in 2010, Salmon’s banjo player at the time, Matt Flinner, couldn’t make the show so Emmitt brought along former RockyGrass Banjo Contest winner Andy Thorn from his Emmitt-Nershi Band. It was a game changer.
“Andy’s a real young guy with a lot of great energy who plays in a way that definitely relates to Mark’s [Vann] playing and he’s a lot of fun to be around, it’s led to a real revival that just clicks on some hard to describe level” says Herman. “We’ve played with some great banjo players over the past few years, and not to say anything about them being less than great musicians, but there’s just something intangible about playing with Andy that kind of makes Drew and I look at each other and grin. This is what we’ve been missing as far as that feeling between Drew, Mark and I that used to be there.”
The 29-year-old Thorn grew up a Salmon fan in North Carolina and says the band helped him realize “this is what I want to do with my life.” Ironically, it’s his presence in the group that has given Leftover Salmon new life. Today, on the brink of another “Festivaaal” season, the band has recorded Aquatic Hitchhiker. Produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, this is Salmon’s first record in eight years and first ever of all original material.
“Steve [Berlin] understood where this album needed to go and how we all needed to work together as a band to make it happen” says Emmitt. Set for release on May 22, the recording process solidified the new Salmon, cauterizing old wounds and allowing fresh ideas to grow over past scars.
“The time is right for this band to come back on a lot of levels” says Emmitt. “It’s taken us a little while, but I think we’re finally there.”
Floodwood featuring Al Schnier & Vinnie Amico of moe.
The foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, also known as “The Leatherstocking Region” is home to Floodwood, the northeast’s newest progressive string band. Its members are veteran musicians who’ve performed on stages around the world over the last 20 years. They are breathing fresh life into timeless acoustic music & play with the dexterity & chops of seasoned pros. Al Schnier & Vinnie Amico, not only play together in moe. (http://moe.org) one of the premier touring bands in the country, but they’ve also spent over 10 years recording & touring with the Americana group Al & The Transamericans. Likewise, Jay Barady spent over 10 years recording & touring with the Bluegrass group Wooden Spoon from Taos, until returning to his hometown in central, NY. Nick Piccinni is a classically trained violinist, who learned his bluegrass chops the old fashioned way – in festival picking circles. He’s an award winning banjo player & fiddler in high demand on the NY bluegrass circuit. Bass player, Zachary Fleitz is an avant-garde bassist, not unlike Wooten & Oteil, & has even developed his own patent pending midi instrument – “the midi wing chun dummy”.