Leftover Salmon

For the past quarter-century, Colorado’s Leftover Salmon has established itself as one of the great purveyors of Americana music, digging deep into the well that supplies its influences; rock ‘n’ roll, folk, bluegrass, Cajun, soul, zydeco, jazz and blues.  They are firmly settled in the long lineage of bands that defy simple categorization, instead setting their own musical agenda.  They are the direct descendants of bands like Little Feat, New Grass Revival, Grateful Dead and The Band, born of the heart and soul of America itself, playing music that reflects the sounds emanating from the Appalachian hills, the streets of New Orleans, the clubs of Chicago, the plains of Texas, and the mountains of Colorado.

During Leftover Salmon’s twenty-five plus years as a band they have headlined shows and festivals from coast to coast, released nine albums, and maintained a vibrant, relevant and influential voice in the music world.  Over that time, Leftover Salmon’s sound has grown and evolved while staying true to the roots and guiding spirit of the band’s founding members –  mandolinist/singer Drew Emmitt and guitarist/singer Vince Herman

The evolution of Leftover Salmon’s music is influenced by Emmitt and Herman’s keen musical instincts, and follows a musical path that adheres to the deep tradition the duo started when they first formed the group along with deceased banjo player Mark Vann.  The addition of new band members over the years has nurtured an unmistakable evolution and freshness in Leftover Salmon’s sound, and has added an edge to the long-lasting power of the band’s music.  Today, Leftover Salmon endures as a vital and significant presence and holds an unequivocal stature as a truly legendary band.

Now fueled by the rhythm section of drummer Alwyn Robinson, keyboardist Erik Deustch and long time bassist Greg Garrison, the band is currently enjoying a creative renaissance.  The front line trio of Emmitt, Herman and prodigious banjo player Andy Thorn are continually challenged and pushed in new directions as the band collectively searches for new spaces and sounds within their extensive catalog of songs.      

Leftover Salmon’s greatness cannot simply be measured through album and concert ticket sales.  For a band as unique as Leftover Salmon, that measure is found in their impact on the music world as whole.  With their unpredictable approach in a live setting, their willingness to take chances by fusing disparate musical styles together and their incorporation of non-traditional bluegrass covers into their repertoire, Leftover Salmon has pushed that progressive bluegrass sound they were originally influenced by to the next level.

Leftover Salmon are considered to be the architects of what has become known as Jamgrass – where bands clearly schooled in the traditional rules of bluegrass break free of those rules through non-traditional instrumentation and an innate ability to push songs in new psychedelic directions live.  This has created an altogether new dimension for bands such as The String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters and countless others to inhabit.  Leftover Salmon’s willingness to never be boxed in by “normal” music standards has given the bands that have followed in their wake the license to do and try what they want.

The history of Leftover Salmon begins in 1989 when members of Herman’s Salmon Heads could not make a New Year’s Eve gig at the Eldorado Cafe in Crested Butte, Colorado.  Herman called on his buddy, fellow Boulder picker Emmitt, to help supply a few players from his band, the Left Hand String Band, to fill out the lineup for the evening.  The energy that night was unmistakable and Emmitt immediately realized, “this could be something really cool.”  Emmitt and Herman soon shelved their respective bands and focused all their energy into the new one – which they named Leftover Salmon.

This set the stage for a long career that has relied as much on spontaneous improvisation as it has on practiced skill.  With the combination of the Left Hand String Band’s bluegrass tendencies and the Salmon Heads’ old-timey, Cajun and zydeco-inspired insanity, it is easy to step back and see Leftover Salmon as the natural evolution of progressive bluegrass; the rebellious child of Hot Rize and New Grass Revival with a healthy side of Beausoleil thrown in for good measure.  However, only seeing them in that light devalues their widely divergent style and broad appeal.

Leftover Salmon’s distinctively quirky and original musical personality quickly took shape around mandolin/guitar/fiddle player Emmitt and his dynamic style and Herman’s front-man persona that allows him to lead each show like a crazed, joyous pied-piper.  The addition of innovative banjo powerhouse Vann, who had played with Emmitt in the Left Hand String Band, allowed Leftover Salmon’s unique and uncommonly compelling style to coalesce around the three-headed monster of Herman, Emmitt, and Vann.

Early on, the band dug deep into the bluegrass and old-timey cannon and discovered something interesting.  “We found that the older the song we played, the more old-timey bluegrass it was, the rowdier the crowd would get,” says Herman. “The slam dancing that took place was just out of hand. People were just flailing across the room.  We would look at each on stage like, ‘Whoa,’ we could be onto something here.”  This discovery, combined with the band’s willingness to incorporate everything from Cajun music to calypso, rock, ska, and whatever else struck their fancy at that moment.  This led them to label their music “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass”; this label still fits today, but the sound has also continued to evolve in more modern, adventurous directions.

As the band began to make an impact in the first half of the 1990s with the widespread reception of their first two albums (1993’s Bridges to Bert and 1995’s live Ask the Fish), Leftover Salmon found themselves comfortably aligned with a new crop of similarly cutting-edge artists.  These bands – Phish, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, the Dave Matthews Band and the Aquarium Rescue Unit among others – took a decidedly grass roots approach to the music business. Defined by their widely differing musical styles and approaches and united by their always-evolving “go-for-broke” live shows, they gathered under the loose title of “jam bands”.  This identified them as bands that toured relentlessly, encouraging their fans to freely trade tapes of their live shows, and characterized them as units who were willing to investigate a combination of musical styles that seemed misplaced anywhere else.  While at first outside of the public eye and the mainstream, these bands soon found a home on the highly influential H.O.R.D.E. tour (which Leftover Salmon was a part of in 1997), broke down music business barriers, and created a musical revolution that Leftover Salmon was at the forefront of. 

Leftover Salmons’s 1997 major label debut Euphoria, released on Hollywood records, was a raucous celebration of Leftover Salmon’s signature slamgrass style.  Their follow up, 1999’s groundbreaking Nashville Sessions, pushed the bar even higher while exploring what could be accomplished by a band that was not afraid to break free of traditional labels. The album pulled together an army of A-list musicians from all walks-of-life including Waylon Jennings, Earl Scruggs, Del McCoury, Taj Mahal, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Lucinda Williams, and John Bell who teamed with Leftover Salmon to create a truly grand celebration of American music.

In 2002, founding member Vann lost his battle with cancer.  Before his death, he implored the band to continue after he was gone.  The band’s legacy was already well secure, but they heeded his advice and continued touring with the help of a cadre of banjo-playing friends including Jeff Mosier, Scott Vestal, Tony Furtado, and Matt Flinner.  Leftover Salmon released a live tribute album to Vann in 2002, entitled Live, which featured the last lineup that Vann was a part of.  This was followed by another groundbreaking collaboration, 2003’s O’Cracker Where Art Thou?, which found the band backing up David Lowery and Johnny Hickman from the alternative rock band Cracker.  The album re-imagined Cracker tunes in ways not thought possible before. The following year brought the self titled Leftover Salmon – the band’s first studio album since Vann’s passing.  Over the ensuing years, the band continued to tour non-stop as they had always done before. 

In 2005 after fifteen years together, the band took a break from the road in order to focus on other projects and individually regroup from the impact Vann’s passing had on the band.  However, the power of Leftover Salmon was just too much to contain, and in 2007 the band returned in full force. Since then the line-up has solidified around Emmitt, Herman, Garrison, Robinson, Thorn, and newest member Deutsch. 

Leftover Salmon has released two studio albums since their return; 2012’s Aquatic Hitchhiker, and 2014’s High Country, both produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin.  The band celebrated their 25th Anniversary in 2015 with the release of the live album 25, which complied performances from the previous two years and the band’s collaborations with Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne.  Leftover Salmon continues to deliver powerful performances on stages and at festivals across the country, reaffirming their presence as one of the most engaging and charismatic bands to ever hit the touring circuit.

For Emmitt, looking back on over twenty-five plus years in Leftover Salmon, he is proud of their humble beginnings, their lengthy list of accomplishments, and the lasting impact they have.  “I never would have dreamed that I would have been in a band that furthered that musical tradition I looked up to growing up,” says Emmitt.  “To be able to take the influences I had, and go even further with it, with Leftover Salmon.  Making it more of a rock ‘n’ roll thing, but still playing bluegrass – that was the vision.  Going from the campground to the main stage, that has been like a fairy tale for us.”