Leftover Salmon: 20 Years Down River

By Team JamBase Oct 20, 2009 9:43 pm PDT

By: Nancy Dunham

Editor’s Note:

In honor of Leftover Salmon’s historic 20th anniversary, we’re working with the band to offer fans a unique look back at their legendary career. Pop in an old tape (yup, we’ve still got our Maxells), catch the band at a festivaaaaaal, or take a look around JamBase and Leftover Salmon’s influence on the live music scene(s) we cover and care for so deeply is clear and present. In fact, we’re proud to say that Leftover Salmon helped water the very soil that JamBase has grown out of. Maybe you feel the same way.

Yet, as we celebrate what Salmon has given the music world, they want to give us just a little bit more. Leftover Salmon is well aware that they’d never be celebrating 20 years if it weren’t for the fans and they want to say thank you. We’re honored to partner up with them on this opportunity to bring you two albums worth (28 tracks total) of mostly never-before released live Leftover Salmon that covers the band’s entire career. It’s packed with special guests, classics, covers, and it tells as much of the band’s story as the words you’re about to read. And they’re all free, like a proper thank you should be. At the end of this story you’ll find a track listing, link and more info on Part 1 of our four part free live album download, but you can get started and Download Leftover Salmon Celebrating 20 Years Disc 1 now. You can also stream the first installment with the nifty little audio player to the right. And keep an eye out for the second batch of songs coming soon.

For Part 2 of our Celebrating Leftover Salmon feature go here.

Leftover Salmon vintage press shot
Emmitt, Vann, Garrison, Herman, McKay, Martinez
Ben Kaufmann‘s life was changed by Leftover Salmon. The Yonder Mountain String Band bass player knew he wanted to be a musician, but it wasn’t until he was 19 and saw the Boulder-based “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass” band at The Wetlands in New York that he had a view of what musical path to take.

“From the minute they took the stage, their music blew me away,” said Kaufmann. “I never heard anything like them before. As soon as the show ended, I went over to the VW bus with the merch table and bought the CD and listened to it and said, ‘Where does this music come from?’ That’s what encouraged me to move to Boulder.”

Stories about how Leftover Salmon affected various lives abound in all quarters of the music community. Kaufmann recalls that once YMSB formed, Leftover Salmon was instrumental in getting them gigs in the Denver area.

The impact of Salmon is even more interesting when you consider the fact that when the band formed in 1989 – when members of the Salmon Heads joined forces with the Left Hand String Band – it occurred by happenstance.

“Last night I watched [Martin Scorsese’s film about The Rolling Stones] Shine A Light and those guys are so much like us,” said Leftover Salmon co-founder Drew Emmitt, the group’s mandolin player. “It’s not that we’re like The Rolling Stone but they’re just a ragtag bunch of maniacs like us.”

In the film, Mick Jagger talks about forming the band in 1962 and thinking he’d try it one year and see if it worked out. If so, Jagger said he’d re-up for another year. Of course, the band is still going strong.

“That’s just like us,” said Emmitt. “There was no preconceived notion. We never thought we’d go out and play and travel the country. We just wanted to go out and play and have fun.”

Looking Back On Leftover Salmon

“Their music is unique. It just makes you feel good,” said Wavy Gravy, an activist, comic and all around friend to musicians since the 1960s. “There is nothing like them, with their incredible buoyancy and joy. That’s what they do – they make joy.”

Drew Emitt & Vince Herman – Leftover Salmon by Eric Abramson
That joy must have been what the fates had in mind when they brought the core of the band together.

Drew Emmitt grew up in Tennessee just outside Nashville. Although his family was musical and artistic – his dad was a writer, his mom a playwright – the family feared that Emmitt wouldn’t be able to make a living in music. But Emmitt was hooked from a young age, having grown up on influences that ranged from Gordon Lightfoot to Muddy Water to The Allman Brothers Band and Black Sabbath.

“I was exposed to classic music, rock & roll, and the blues. It was coming from all sides,” Emmitt said of his parents and siblings.

At about the same time, Vince Herman was growing up in Pittsburgh where Motown and doo-wop sounds prevailed.

“My first influence, though, was actually polka,” said Herman. “I was convinced you couldn’t get married without an accordion. I still have a weakness for the accordion.”

In high school, Herman became a fan of Southern rock and bluegrass, and those influences deepened when he was in college in Morgantown, West Virginia, where he got into the “bluegrass and old timey scene.”

Vince Herman – Leftover Salmon by Eric Abramson
“That really made me want to do that for a living,” said Herman, who put his dream on hold after he got married. “I did every kind of work imaginable, from working on fishing boats to construction. I tried the real jobs but they just weren’t for me.”

Emmitt, whose family moved to Boulder when he was about 10, also tried various jobs – most notably working with children in a daycare center, which he enjoyed – but found himself more and more caught up in the city’s music scene.

“In Boulder in the ’70s, it was a little more folk. Pure Prairie League, Stephen Stills, and Dan Fogelberg were always around,” said Emmitt. “But it was when I saw Hot Rize that everything totally changed for me. I was totally bit by the bluegrass bug.”

Although he was in garage bands in high school, the atmosphere surrounding the bluegrass scene was a strong pull for Emmitt.

“I realized there was a whole culture attached to it,” he said. “I loved that whole scene of people getting together around the campfire and playing. That’s what really got me.”

The first time Herman was fully exposed to the bluegrass scene was in about 1977 at a festival at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I had been playing music for years at that point but that’s really when I found my musical niche,” said Herman. “What a great way to socialize and enjoy music.”

Continue reading for more on Leftover Salmon…

Their music is unique. It just makes you feel good. There is nothing like them, with their incredible buoyancy and joy. That’s what they do – they make joy.

Wavy Gravy

The Right Place

Drew Emmitt – LoS by Abramson
Musical aspirations and intentions are one thing, making it big quite another. Both Emmitt and Herman said that there are large doses of luck that factor into the equation.

“It has to be the right people for sure,” said Emmitt. “We happened upon it. There are so many great musicians in the world that really deserve to be famous [but don’t make it]. It’s all about timing and finding the right people.”

Sam Bush remembers watching the young band when they were first performing as Leftover Salmon.

“One of the things that kind of set them apart was their versatility,” said Bush, “to be able to play electric music [with] fiddle, mandolin. It’s not surprising they found such a large audience. I love all their influences – the newgrass, the rock, the reggae. It really caught my attention.”

Herman said the deep roots of Leftover Salmon can be traced to the musical experimentation he and the other members of the band have explored since they were young.

“Getting your brain wrapped around one thing allows you to speak the language, and once you speak the language it is kind of like entering a culture,” he said. “In Boulder there was a player named Buck who was instrumental in uniting people. He called this thing he put together – before the Internet – Buck’s List, and there were probably 100 people on it. If you wanted to have a picking party or throw together a band, that’s where you started.”

Of course following a musical dream isn’t that easy to do when you have bills to pay. Herman remembers all to well the struggles he faced while working his way up in the business.

“It requires a lot of faith,” he said. “I have a 22-year-old who’s now trying to decide what to do, and I’d hate to see him live as close to poverty for as long as I did. But if that’s what leads to happiness, that’s the way you have to go.”

Emmitt recalls how his parents both fretted about his musical aspirations.

Mark Vann by Abramson
“They always wanted me to have something to fall back on. Unfortunately, they passed away before they got to see me do this,” Emmitt said. “That’s a big regret in my life. They’d be so surprised to see the kind of life I lead.”

Of course that didn’t happen right away. After years of kicking around in music scenes, fate took hold in 1985. That’s when Herman left West Virginia to move to Colorado influenced, like Emmitt, by Hot Rize.

“I was looking for a place to move that had different bluegrass,” said Herman. “I drove to Boulder, walked into a bar that said bluegrass was playing, and that’s where I first met Drew. It’s kind of weird to get out of your car, walk into a place, and find someone you will play with the next 25 years.”

That friendship deepened as they got to know each other through the Boulder music scene. Then, fate stepped in again one year at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival when Herman’s band, The Salmon Heads, was playing. Emmitt was at the fest just hanging out, walking through the compound when he heard “just incredible banjo playing and walked over.” That’s when he met banjo player Mark Vann, who eventually became the third co-founder of Leftover Salmon. The three formed a fast friendship at Telluride while continuing to play in their own bands and competing in a series of silly contests.

“Mark and I were in two different bands. Vince and I definitely had a chemistry going,” said Emmitt. “I thought something cool would happen.”

After the festival ended the three new friends walked up to Bear Creek Falls and sat on a cliff talking until the sun rose.

“You could feel the energy among the three of us,” said Emmitt. “You could really feel it going on.”

As the sun rose in all its splendor, Vann suddenly yelled, “Down in front,” referring to a large mountain that partially obscured their view. All three men started laughing.

“That was what sealed the deal for me,” said Herman. “That was great.”

Starting Leftover Salmon

Figuring out their new band’s name was pretty easy. The three new friends and their buddies who would fill out the group just started playing with the names of the two main bands they were in, and Herman finally coined Leftover Salmon.

Deciding on what music to play was almost as simple.

Leftover Salmon at Telluride Bluegrass Fest by Abramson
“We really just said, ‘Let’s take bluegrass, crank it up, add drums, and that will be Leftover Salmon,'” said Emmitt.

“I really thought it’d last one gig,” quipped Herman.

Not only has it lasted 20 years and counting, but that first gig will be celebrated on December 28 when the band plays The Eldo, the site of their first show. They’ll follow with shows at the Boulder Theater on December 30 and New Year’s Eve.

“It’s not a very large place; I think it seats about 225 people,” said Emmitt of The Eldo, “but after all we’ve done, all the large venues, it’s a way to come full circle.”

In a way, that small club filled with friends from the area is what gave Leftover Salmon the all-important push it needed to launch its career.

“You pick up energy from the audience,” said Emmitt. “You discover people really want you to succeed, and you take that energy and you run with it. You stop worrying about it and you get up there and do your thing and give out energy and get it back.”

The energy Leftover Salmon found reached higher levels the more old string band tunes they added.

“Those would get people really fired up,” said Herman. “It was what really struck a chord with the whole slamgrass thing. People got real rowdy.”

Both Emmitt and Herman admitted to being more than a bit concerned when slamgrass first began, but they say people weren’t overly aggressive, just fun loving. That’s almost the same way the signature sound of Leftover Salmon developed.

Continue reading for more on Leftover Salmon…

One of the things that kind of set them apart was their versatility, to be able to play electric music [with] fiddle, mandolin. It’s not surprising they found such a large audience. I love all their influences – the newgrass, the rock, the reggae. It really caught my attention.

Sam Bush

“We took a few different influences and put them all together,” said Herman. “That’s how we called it Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass. We took all our favorite influences, mixed them together, and that’s what it became.”

Del McCoury, Bush, Emmitt, Vann by Abramson
And other musicians and fans loved it, packing Leftover Salmon’s shows and clamoring for more. One of the early devotes was Paul Barrere of Little Feat.

“Vince and Drew were two of the best young bluegrass pickers I heard in a long time,” said Barrere. “The way that they incorporated rock & roll into the music was just brilliant. Their impact on the jam band scene is huge.”

Musician Ronnie McCoury had first seen the band at Telluride in the early 1990s and was hooked by the eclectic sound and the members’ energy.

“No one really does what they do,” said McCoury. “Personally, I don’t even know how they create that sound, but that’s why they have such a great following that will stick with them forever.”

There were certainly disbelievers, though, when the band started. Emmitt remembers one friend telling him the newly purchased electric mandolin was “cool but all those electric mandolins went out in the ’70s.” Still, the bandmates wouldn’t be dissuaded.

“It really seemed like the smartest thing to do [to develop our sound],” said Emmitt. “You had bluegrass and you had rock, and in that respect there wasn’t much happening. You had the [Nitty Gritty] Dirt Band and others with drums and stuff, but they were more country. We took it to a different place. We played with a lot more abandon.”

Herman talks about the television show America’s Got Talent and the parade of genres and categories showcased.

“I watch that and think we could be contenders in all the categories,” he said. “We saw a window of opportunity and we combined all those categories.”

Losing A Brother

Mark Vann by Abramson
The band was rolling along and life was sweet when suddenly everything changed. Mark Vann, the brilliant banjo player, became ill and was diagnosed with cancer. He died on March 4, 2002.

The time of his diagnosis was an odd time for the entire country because it occurred just prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Not only was the band without Mark but they also played a few gigs without a drummer because Jose Martinez was in Seattle. A native of Venezuela, he was concerned about trying to get on a commercial airline flight so soon after the attacks, so he rode a Greyhound bus from Seattle to Texas to rejoin the band.

“Walking onstage that first time without Mark was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done in my life,” said Emmitt.

The pain didn’t ease for years. Even now, raw emotion floods the voices of Emmitt and Herman when they discuss their former bandmate.

“It absolutely devastated us,” said Herman. “It was hard to consider going on and playing again after he passed, but that’s what we do. We would have loved to have canned the whole thing. Drew and Mark and I together, it was a spiritual thing that led it along. But none of us had savings accounts and we had to keep going. And we did. It was definitely one of the hardest things I have ever done. Playing music is so spiritually connected with well being and to go onstage and look at the empty spot where Mark used to stand was brutal.”

Friends, including Sam Bush and banjo player Reverend Jeff Mosier, played with the band and helped ease some of the pain.

Herman & Vann – Leftover Salmon by Eric Abramson
“The Rev. Mosier was really the perfect person to go out with us as the first banjo player,” said Emmitt. “He is a very witty, very funny, very energetic person, and also very spiritual, and it made sense to have someone who was called Reverend be with us at that point. He made us laugh at a time when it was really hard to find laughter anywhere.”

In a way, music became a salvation for the band members. Playing, which had been a pure joy, became a form of healing for them.

“The music is going to be different but the music comes out of you and you need to express it just as much,” said Herman. “Those gigs were really hard but they were also incredibly therapeutic. Music goes on.”

At the end of 2004, the band announced it would take a hiatus. Until they reunited in 2007, many doubted they would ever return.

“I think we were like a three-legged beast walking on two,” said Herman. “We had never quite gotten that balance back, and it was a struggle just changing personnel. We had never taken a break after he passed and we just said at one point it was time to give it a rest. It was too spiritually taxing. It had run its course.”

When the band reunited in 2007 for performances at High Sierra Music Festival, All Good Festival, and, of course, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Herman and Emmitt were quick to dismiss notions that Leftover Salmon was back. Yet when they were announced at Telluride as “Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman and Friends,” Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band said, “We all know what’s going on here.”

Leftover Salmon 2009
It is true? Is Leftover Salmon really back?

“We are in an interesting place,” said Emmitt. “We were a reunion band at that time and we’ve done reunion shows and festivals. It’s hard to say where we are, but it really works well this way. It is awesome. One of the greatest things that ever happened to me personally is putting this band back together because it’s very fresh and enriched because of our solo work.”

Emmitt, Herman, and the other members each support the other’s solo projects that allow them to reach into needed creative areas, knowing they can always return to Leftover Salmon.

“It’s comfortable to be back in this place,” said Herman. “It’s a great repertoire of music and it’s very comfortable to dive back in. I don’t know where it will go but we’ll keep playing music and having fun.”

That, said Bush, is really all their friends and family should ask right now.

“It left a big heartbreaking hole for them to lose Mark,” Bush said. “They really loved Mark; we all did. If anything, since Mark’s demise we are all thankful that they are back and pickin’ together again. If anything maybe helps them all, it’s that they played somewhat separately for a time. That gives them – and us – an appreciation to get them back.”

Continue reading to download the first part of our free Leftover Salmon live double-album…

As part of celebrating Leftover Salmon’s 20 year anniversary, we’re giving away a double-album full of 28 live tracks starting in 1991 and taking us right up to 2009. Selecting, mastering and organizing the material fell largely on the shoulders of Leftover Salmon manger John Joy, who along with band archivist Chad Staehly and Eric Abramson, who did the Leftover Salmon Years In Your Ears DVD, narrowed it down from hundreds – if not thousands – of songs to bring this live compilation to life. Special thanks is also due to James Tuttle who mastered the final selections at Airshow Mastering.

“It sure has been a trip!” said Vince Herman about listening back to the first eight songs we’re offering, all from 1991-1994. Surprised by how rock & roll the young band sounded, Herman explained that, “It just seemed like the places we were playing and the crowds we were playing to, it was more of a rock & roll kind of crowd in the early days, and bluegrass was something kind of new to ’em, in the bar scene anyways. So I guess we probably leaned a bit more towards the rock & roll than straight ahead bluegrass like we played in the Left Hand String Band or the jug band and the Cajun stuff of the Salmon Heads.”

Vince Herman was interviewed about the 20 Year compilation by Cal Roach.

You can download Part 1 of the Leftover Salmon Celebrating 20 Years Sampler HERE.

Track Listing for Part 1 of the Leftover Salmon Celebrating 20 Years Sampler

1. Blister in the Sun 3:59 – 05/04/1991 McCabe’s Boulder, CO
Band: Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, Mark Vann, Gerry Cavagnaro, Michael Wooten, Rob Galloway
Songwriter/Composer Credits: Violent Femmes

2. Just Before The Evening 4:02 – 05/04/1991 McCabe’s Boulder, CO
Band: Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, Mark Vann, Gerry Cavagnaro, Michael Wooten, Rob Galloway Songwriter/Composer Credits: Drew Emmitt – Leftover Salmon

3. Whiskey Before Breakfast/Over The Waterfall 3:47 – 05/04/1991 McCabe’s – Boulder, CO
Band: Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, Mark Vann, Gerry Cavagnaro, Michael Wooten, Rob Galloway
Songwriter/Composer Credits: Traditionally arranged by Leftover Salmon

4. Who Stole My Monkey 4:42 – 05/25/1991 Stage Stop – Rollinsville, CO
Band: Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, Mark Vann, Gerry Cavagnaro, Michael Wooten, Rob Galloway
Songwriter/Composer Credits: Zachary Richard

5. Mystery 4:19 – 10/02/1993 – Fox Theater – Boulder, CO
Band: Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, Mark Vann, Michael Wooten, Tye North, Joe Jogerst
Songwriter/Composer Credits: Mark Hallman

6. Weights 3:53 10/02/1993 – Fox Theater – Boulder, CO
Band: Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, Mark Vann, Michael Wooten, Tye North, Joe Jogerst
Songwriter/Composer Credits: Drew Emmitt – Leftover Salmon

7. Dance On Your Head 4:12 – 10/19/1994 Music Farm – Charleston, SC
Band: Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, Mark Vann, Michael Wooten, Tye North
Songwriter/Composer Credits: Vince Herman / Mark Vann – Leftover Salmon

8. Head Bag 5:34 10/19/1994 Music Farm – Charleston, SC
Band: Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, Mark Vann, Michael Wooten, Tye North
Songwriter/Composer Credits: Vince Herman – Leftover Salmon

Check back for Part 2 of our Leftover Salmon 20 Year Celebration featuring a bunch more free music!

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