The Art Of The Sit-In | Vince Herman – Leftover Salmon
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Scott Metzger, Alan Evans, Stanley Jordan, Stanton Moore and more.
Leftover Salmon soon celebrates its 25th anniversary and sounds so potent that it’s easy to forget there was a time – not long ago – that it didn’t look like there’d be any more Salmon at all. But trials and tribulations are part of a band’s longevity, and the spirit of Salmon – supported by new members but still with the same spirit that birthed its “poly-ethnic cajun slamgrass” thing in the first place – is strong.
Vince Herman seems to be enjoying his role as an elder statesman; as he tells us in a wide-ranging interview, “there are many lives to live,” smiling about the one he has now. Salmon, which a few years ago finally returned as a regular, full-time band, is still one of the marquee picking crews, helping guide what’s now another golden age of great and varied young string bands. It has some beautiful new colors, too – including the addition of Little Feat keys legend Bill Payne as a touring member of Salmon and regular collaborator.
We asked Herman to talk about the band just ahead of its anniversary celebration show at Nashville’s vaunted Ryman Auditorium this week, and of course Payne’s contributions, but also about Herman’s move from Colorado to Oregon, his parting of ways with Great American Taxi, and what the next year holds.
JAMBASE: In an interview from about 18 months ago, you mentioned that after Mark Vann passed away in 2002, the Leftover Salmon vibe was just a tough thing to keep going. You guys reunited, and then occasional get-togethers became regular runs of shows, and now you’re a full-time touring unit again. When do you think the vibe returned, and how did you know?
VINCE HERMAN: It really returns every time we play a show. That’s it. But I will say it’s really revived in the past two years with the addition of Bill Payne, who’s really bringing a new energy to it, as is Alwyn Robinson on drums.
I think what we have now is a space where everyone can find a spot to do what they like to do, next to the band. I think bands really hit their stride when they can utilize all of the aspects of an individual player’s repertoire, and Bill coming into our scene actually allows our rhythm section to go into more of a jazz direction, or for some of us to do our improv thing, or to freak out, you know? We’ve hit a good balance with the band right now. It feels as good as ever.
JAMBASE: How did it come about that Bill Payne would come on board? He’s become sort of a permanent special guest it seems.
VH: Bill produced the record we made right before we called it quits for a while, and it was then that we really cemented our relationship with him. On top of that, I’ve been going down to Jamaica for the Little Feat Fan Fest for a few years and doing those events. Since Little Feat’s been taking a break, Bill’s been available, and we’ve been lucky enough to provide him with enough fun to stick around.
JAMBASE: Does he have a spot with the band as long as he has the time?
VH: It’s open-ended, man. We want him for every gig he’s available for. We’re not putting a wedding ring on it or anything, but we’re already starting to write with him for the next record. He’s very much deeply involved in all of these things we do.
JAMBASE: You and the other members of Salmon have been collaborating on songs for decades, and Bill has of course a long, rich history with Little Feat and the other things he does. How does the songwriting mesh?
VH: It’s great, man. In particular, Bill and I are working on a tune together, and I was originally wanting to take it to a different place chordally. You know over the years, as you do it for a long time, you kind of start writing the same song over and over. As my friend Todd Snider says, “it’s either all ‘Louie Louie’ or ‘Alice’s Restaurant.'” But Bill’s musical vocabulary is so intense, and he and I have figured out how to take a song to certain places [together] that we might not have on our own. It’s been really great to write with him and it’s pushed me to dig through my entire pile of ideas.
JAMBASE: And what’s the status of the next Leftover Salmon record?
VH: Well the next Leftover Salmon record we’re releasing the day after Thanksgiving. We’ve been making that over the last year or so and just about finished that up, it’s called High Country. Bill’s got a tune on there that he wrote with Robert Hunter, we worked up an arrangement of that. That’s a bit of a nod toward what’s to come. After this record, we’re going to probably head to New Orleans to make a record together.
JAMBASE: A good record-making town, for sure.
VH: We love New Orleans. We love all that stuff: the urban stuff, the Cajun stuff. I think we’l take some time to go down and make a Louisiana record and write with that in mind. I’ve spent a whole lot of time down there and I’ve played traditional Cajun music and zydeco. It’s the most fun stuff ever. We’ll still be doing our bluegrass thing but it’ll be heavy into the New Orleans thing.
JAMBASE: Earlier this year you announced you’d parted ways with Great American Taxi. That’s a band you spent a lot of time with, so what led to the decision that you just couldn’t give it the time and attention anymore?
VH: When I made the move from Colorado to Oregon, things changed. The economics of getting back to Colorado and doing those things with Taxi just didn’t make sense anymore. It’s tough to get out there with a band and make a go of it, especially when you’re starting all over again.
We had a great time doing it. I love those guys – they’re wonderful characters and I hung out with a few of them just last weekend. But I’m out here now in Oregon living my farmer fantasy. There’s so much to do here at home these days that I found I needed to spend less time on the road. It worked out. I think they call this aging gracefully, at least I’ve heard that. [laughs]
JAMBASE: Was it a tough conversation with the members of Great American Taxi?
VH: Yeah, it was. Any time you’re in a band, especially if it’s a merry band of brothers, you’re all kind of dependent on each other for making your living. It’s an intense marriage of your lives and unless you take it seriously, it doesn’t work. We didn’t want to do things on a whim; forming a band is a pretty sacred bond. It was tough. But life has been good to us all.
JAMBASE: And for a part of you, it was tough to leave Colorado after all that time, I imagine.
VH: Yeah, you know it. Living at 9,000 feet for 27 years was glorious. I was really glad I did it but you know that weather pattern doesn’t do much for me anymore. I have to say I’m not skiing much. I really like it here. Occasionally there is snow up in the mountains, but not on my porch – I kind of like that. I haven’t broken my neck falling on the ice in my driveway – I got kind of done with that. It is tough, though. I had a great community of people [in Colorado], and my kids are out there and playing music there. I miss them intensely. But there are many lives to live, and I’m pretty excited about this one now.
JAMBASE: We’ve talked often on JamBase about this new vanguard of string band musicians. You guys are no longer the young guns. You observe what’s been happening in a younger generation, what do you make of all these new exciting pickers?
VH: Man there are tons of great pickers coming up. I admire Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, Colorado and the camps there. My sons learned to play there. And how about all the A-list players who came through RockyGrass. You look at people like Dominick Leslie, and Sarah Jarosz, and Samson Grisman, all these monster players who have come up as kids.
You know there are a bunch of kids going to Berklee now to study string music, too. String music goes far beyond the bluegrass thing it’s become deep in jazz again and almost kind of in chamber music. There’s a lot more room in acoustic music, and there are these kids with incredible proficiency and great ideas taking it in all kinds of new directions.
JAMBASE: I spoke not long ago with a professor at Berklee who talked about exactly that: increasing numbers of young jazz players who wanted to focus on string music improvisation as a course of study.
VH: Our bassist, Dr. Greg Garrison, is connected on that academic side and his dissertation focuses on creating a discography of American folk forms to teach in jazz studies programs. They’re beginning to develop a discography of what they’re after – really presenting this canon of American music.
Jazz education I think took on this more academic feel over the years, but you know, to me, the whole canon of American music is jazz to me. It’s “loosen the rules and play great music” – that’s what jazz is to me. So it really makes sense that young players are starting to think that way for their education. And it’s pretty cool how our bass player works that angle.
JAMBASE: So at this point, Vince, we can accurately describe Leftover Salmon as being a full-time band again?
VH: Yeah, we can. There are always other things going on, but we’re on for 130 to 140 Salmon shows a year. That’s plenty.
JAMBASE: I can’t let you go without hearing a good sit-in story, either you with another band or someone with Leftover Salmon or one of your other bands. What comes to mind?
VH: Well, I’ll tell a classic story. Ernie K-Doe as you probably know was a New Orleans musician who passed [in 2001] but was famous for the Mother-in-Law lounge. That’s a New Orleans institution. His big hit was “Mother-in-Law” [Vince sings a few bars of the R&B staple]. Classic New Orleans stuff. We had him sit in with us one night at Tipitina’s Warehouse. He got up on stage, and he had to leave in a few minutes to go catch a plane to New York to win a W.C. Handy Award.
So he sat in with us and sang the song we had talked about doing, and then he launches into this medley – he’s three or four songs into it, and he’s just rolling and we’re vamping behind him. His wife is standing on the side of the stage giving him the look like, we gotta go. We look down and there’s this girl near the front of the audience who just can’t believe he’s up there. She’s reaching out to him, she just can’t believe what she’s seeing, and he’s kind of paying attention to her and kind of not, and she’s climbing up toward the stage, taking off her shirt, climbing up on the railing and the guards are going over to grab her. And Ernie’s kind of feeling it, and he goes, “Do you want to touch me? Do you want to touch me? You went through all of that? Good god, girl, you going to put all that up on the railing?”
JAMBASE: And his wife was OK with that?
VH: Probably, or probably not. His son comes up and gives him the hook arm right after.
JAMBASE: That would definitely be one to remember.
VH: Of recent stories, well, we had Mike Gordon come out and sit in with us in Colorado. It was at Cervantes and it started at 1 a.m. after Phish ended. He came down and he played some things and it was just great. I like to think of Phish, with what they do to practice, they have this exchange they do that has them playing in holes no one else is playing in. So as we’re playing this tune with Mike with a total reggae groove, he was responding to us in such a way that what he was playing insisted you be on your toes at all times, he wasn’t just up there grooving. It was amazing he could come in and work that on us.
JAMBASE: And you’ve known and played with Mike for a long time.
VH: Oh yeah, probably since ’92 or ’93. We went through Vermont, we did the HORDE tours. You keep track of your people.
Here are some prime Vince Herman appearances from the past year, well worth your listening hours.
Vince Herman and Big Fat Gap, Acoustic Stage, Hickory, NC, 10/26/2013
A tasty cross-section of Vince favorites, bolstered by Chapel Hill regulars Big Fat Gap and dobroist Jason Starling.
Vince Herman and Friends, Cervantes Other Side, Denver, CO, 12/19/2013
Tuck into this good-ol’, kickass picking party situating Vince with an all-aces lineup that includes members of the Infamous Stringdusters, Elephant Revival, Gipsy Moon and Greensky Bluegrass. All the touchpoints you’d expect – “Reuben’s Train,” “Deep Elem Blues,” “Shenandoah Breakdown,” “Sitting On Top of the World” – and damn fun.
Vince Herman, Grand Lido Resort and Spa, Negril, Jamaica, 3/4/2014
A kinder-than-kind mix of standards from Vince with a relaxed vibe, he starts off solo, adds David Bromberg after “Travelin’ Man” and later Erik Lawrence and Steve Bernstein for some horn accents. Part of this year’s Feat Fan excursion.
Leftover Salmon, FedEx Stage, Beale Street Music Festival, Memphis, TN, 5/4/2014
Short and sweet, and a nice sampling of the current Salmon-with-Bill Payne sound, closing with fan-favorite “River’s Rising.”
Leftover Salmon, Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV, 7/3/2014
Late night Vegas sizzler doesn’t disappoint, with a monster “Dixie Chicken” to boot. That’s Stringduster Andy Hall slipping in partway through the set starting with “Aquatic Hitchhiker.”