In 1989 a few fun-loving musicians from Boulder, Colorado, meshed the sounds of local groups Left Hand String Band and the Salmon Heads. After a few shows together they began touring regularly, and the chemistry that began there is now known as one of the most enduring, genre-defying bands of its era: Leftover Salmon.
As they toured around the country in a big yellow school bus, Leftover Salmon quickly gained popularity with their high energy performances, undeniable musicianship, and their fearlessness to interlock different influences into what is now understood as “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass.” With the exception of the Grateful Dead, jam bands were fairly unprecedented in early 90s music. Groups like Phish and Widespread Panic were just starting to kick off at the time, and Leftover Salmon certainly caught wind of this. They were able to take their bluegrass roots and bridge the gap into rock n’ roll with a sound nobody had ever heard before.
The lineup fluctuated throughout the years, but the core three members, Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt and Mark Vann remained part of the band until Vann’s death in 2002. As they close in on their 25th year, Leftover Salmon will release a new live album, “25”, which will feature tracks from the band’s most recent lineup of Vince Herman (vocals, acoustic guitar, washboard), Drew Emmitt (vocals, acoustic and electric mandolin, electric guitar, fiddle), Andy Thorn (vocals, acoustic and electric banjo), Greg Garrison (vocals, acoustic and electric bass), Alwyn Robinson (drums), and Bill Payne (vocals, keyboards).
Although “25” includes tracks from just the last three years, it covers the band’s entire career, Garrison said in a recent email interview. “The album highlights the different directions the band is capable of moving in at this point, which is cool,” he said. Garrison, founding member of the bluegrass ensemble Punch Brothers, joined Leftover Salmon in 2000 and has since recorded on three albums with the band. “25” will be released in digital format originally, followed by a limited run on vinyl in 2016.
After two and a half decades, Emmitt and Herman have transcended an era of music together, all while alongside great musicians, including Jeff Sipe, Bill McKay, Pete Sears, and countless guests. The years after Vann’s death saw a tough adjustment for the band, which led to a brief hiatus from 2005 to 2007. Despite the years and changes, Leftover Salmon has lately been bringing the same life and spirit into its performances as in the early days of the band. “Vince brings his unique energy and ‘Festival!!!!’ vibe wherever he goes,” Garrison said. “And Drew has always had the same intensity in his playing and singing.”
The addition of Thorn on the banjo in 2010 brings a revitalizing element to the group. His pure enjoyment in playing is evident on stage, and some back and forth between Thorn and Emmitt has become an exciting component to see. Shortly after Robinson joined on drums, Payne also joined. Payne had previously produced an album for Leftover Salmon and after occasionally sitting in with them for the following couple of years was welcomed as an official member in September of 2014. The legendary Little Feat keyboardist’s extensive background as a rock and blues musician steps up the immersion of influence in the band, and as a whole makes for a lot of fun.
Leftover Salmon plays Saturday at The Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, followed by a Sunday performance at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C., before heading out of the Mid-Atlantic region and later embarking on a winter tour in the Midwest.
Written by Meredith Warfield