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Leftover Salmon with Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie

Thursday, Sept. 20 at 6 p.m.

Market Square


Jam Tag

Leftover Salmon taps into indigenous traditions

by Clint Casey

Bluegrass music has seen a resurgence of late in pop culture. Grand Old Opry darlings Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless successfully traded mainstream country for the more traditional genre. The director/producer team of Ethan and Joel Coen followed suit with their latest outing, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and met with the warm reception that counts in both box office receipts and soundtrack sales. Knoxville's own Yee-Haw Industries on Gay Street produces a Bill Monroe fine art print. In short, the Appalachian tradition has lately proven fashionable, as well as lucrative.

Conversely, Leftover Salmon was a bluegrass boy band when country wasn't cool. Formed 11 years ago, members of the Left Hand String Band, a bluegrass band, and the Salmon Heads, a Cajun band, joined forces to create a sound unique. Proudly dubbed "Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass," their melange of musical styles draws sellout crowds across the country. The Boulder, Colorado-based band runs the gauntlet 250 nights a year picking up fans city by city with improvisational skill and borderline vaudeville antics.

(Writer's note: After a solid week or more of playing phone tag with vocalist, guitarist and washboard extraordinaire Vince Herman, at this point I'm supposed to say, "Leftover Salmon was unavailable for comment at press time." Calling the phone number left by Herman on my voice mail, I am greeted with an answering machine message recorded by a small child, "hiii... this is... the house of salmon... leave a message... bye." Despite my frustration, the child's voice is, after all, adorable.)

While Leftover Salmon is often considered a staple in the jam-band circuit, most songs are clocked under six minutes—short by groove standards. Influenced more by New Grass Revival than the Grateful Dead, Leftover Salmon offers up an alternative to jam-band peers Phish and Widespread Panic. In New York's Downtown Express Vince Herman says, "Our music is roots music. It connects the musical past with the present. It brings that old-timey bluegrass music and community feeling to a brand new contemporary audience."

Being a both a jam-band and a bluegrass band, the appearance of local favorite "Rocky Top" in a set-list is more expected than unexpected. Leftover Salmon takes the Knoxville anthem a step further by playing the tune to the lyrics of various songs, including the Eagles' signature "Hotel California." In Herman mentions that, "we went through this phase of doing every song we could possibly do to the tune of 'Rocky Top'... Everything's 'Rocky Top,' when there's a banjo in the band."

Leftover Salmon's The Nashville Sessions, released two years ago on Hollywood Records, featured a veritable who's who of guest players including Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Earl Scruggs, Lucinda Williams, Taj Mahal and Waylon Jennings. However, in spite of its critical acclaim, The Nashville Sessions turned out to be less than a commercial success. In my not-so-humble opinion, the album is a fun, rare gem that managed to fly under industry radar, still pleading for listen after listen. It would take real effort to make an album of poor quality with such a star-studded lineup of established musicians. Nonetheless, Leftover Salmon was dropped from Hollywood Records, left to release the next effort on their own Whirled Beets label in the future. "We probably couldn't have done The Nashville Sessions without Hollywood Records," Herman says in Downtown Express. "We're real happy with what came out of it, but we're even happier that we're out of it and can own our own records again."

The recently revised sextet employs the talents of Herman, Mark Vann (vocals, banjo), Drew Emmitt (vocals, mandolin), Greg Garrison (bass), Bill McKay (keyboards) and Jose Martinez (drummer). Following their New Year's Eve show in Denver, Leftover Salmon lost two members in drummer Jeff Sipe and bassist Tye North who felt it was time to move on to domestic duties. The change in members has the band feeling revived and excited about the possibilities. In press materials, Herman describes the sound as "larger."

"It has provided us with a different kind of sonic bed. It's fresh. There's now a larger palette to work from and we're all loving the new band dynamic." The re-grouping has taken Leftover Salmon in a more old-time rock and roll direction. Herman says, "Our new band members are also great at playing bluegrass so there are a lot more musical places we can go now."

Leftover Salmon is ever-maturing and has turned more to a straightforward blend of country, bluegrass, and rock. Their lyrics have become more internal and contemplative. However, the talent still lies in performances, ranging from quiet acoustic numbers to their raucous electric sound. On stage, nothing is more fun than good, old-fashioned "Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass."

September 13, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 37
© 2001 Metro Pulse