Leftover Salmon

Dec 14, 2009 by

Leftover Salmon

Leftover Salmon – 20 Years of Swimming Upstream

By Michael Gerity

rizzi-150x150 Are you ready for the country?

It was the end of the month, the end of the year and a conclusion to a decade that was, for lack of another word- interesting. It was December 1989 and for one group of Colorado musicians it was only the beginning of what would become a long, arduous journey back upstream.

In October, there was a severe earthquake in San Francisco just before the start of Game 3 of the World Series. And the Grateful Dead released Built to Last on Halloween, the album that proved to be their last studio effort.

By November, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika had brought such sweeping changes to the Communist world that it culminated with a worldwide viewing of a falling Berlin Wall. On December 17th, America’s iconic prime time cartoon The Simpsons, debuted.

~ ~ ~

So as the decade gave its final curtain call, out of a mountain stream in Colorado swam a super-hyper, mullet wearing, Colorado band, brandishing their own high octane amalgamation of music, that they would grow to call Cajun Poly-ethnic Slam grass.

The group was born Leftover Salmon, as the result of a merger between Vince Herman of the (Cajun/Calypso- jug band) the Salmonheads with Drew Emmitt and Mark Vann of the (progressive bluegrass) Left Hand String Band, to round out a lineup for a New Years gig in Crested Butte.

Through fate, luck, or destiny, a harmonic meshing of talents and personalities would arise and after two plus years of playing exclusively across Colorado and its ski towns- the band hit the open road, taking their unique blend of music directly to the people of the rest of the country.

Highway Song

In celebration of 20 years of doing what they instinctively do, the Salmon will be heading back upstream to the Eldo, in Crested Butte, the site of their first show in 1989. Yet the four-night, statewide festival, continues onward beyond that, gathering in Boulder for two shows at the Boulder Theater on December 30th and 31st and again on January 2nd, with a culminating celebration of Leftover Salmon & Friends at the Ogden in Denver.

So to get to this point in their history, one could look back at the migration patterns of Leftover Salmon and fill a couple hours of an in depth National Geographic documentary. But for our purposes here, let’s just say there were many twists and turns along the way, and like most bands that venture into longevity; changes were bound to occur to not only the lineup of band members, but to those special people who kept the growing machine rolling down the road for so many years- the crew and supporting staff.

By 1993 Leftover Salmon was touring relentlessly in support of their first self released album Bridges to Bert. For hours, days and weeks the band honed their craft and solidified their friendships, criss-crossing back and forth across the country in their yellow school bus known as Bridget. It was a grueling schedule that would continue on for many years to come, but for a young band trying to get their music to the people- this is what you did.

The interconnected super highway of the internet was still under construction and years away and the circuit of aligned clubs and festivals that are now in place for bands to slip in and out of so easily was still just a dream. Although they may not have realized it at the time, their extremely tough touring schedule and hard work, would someday be looked upon as a trail blazing effort for many of the bands that followed.

But Leftover Salmon was not alone. There was a growing new circle of bands being forged around the country. And like the Grateful Dead, these bands, that didn’t quite ‘fit’ into the prearranged radio airwave culture, became more focused on the live performance of their music and the legion of fans that they would garner from that dedication.

So by the time Jerry Garcia had passed and the Grateful Dead stopped touring in ’95, a floodgate was opened for a group of young touring bands from coast to coast like Phish, Blues Traveler, moe., Aquarium Rescue Unit and Widespread Panic along with our own deep Colorado well consisting of Leftover Salmon, The Samples, Big Head Todd & the Monsters and the String Cheese Incident. And with the advent of new regionally roaming vehicles like the HORDE tour; this cluster of bands could now get a larger piece of the national recognition pie. From out of the void created by the absence of the Grateful Dead, came a fresh, blossoming genre of musicians, only later to be labeled with the not so wonderful title jambands– (but I’ll save that rant for another article).

Even so, it was still a musical time that was flooded by the ‘grunge’ wave, and Salmon had to work hard to carve out their own niche and style. For those willing to take the step with them and explore a little deeper into the American musical catalog, they dug deep and further enhanced their live performances.

The road became a proving ground and throughout the 90’s they gained respect from their peers as a powder keg of slam-grassing fun and energy. They had become a road tested act, which only made them more and more creative. It was this drive and motivation that earned them a legion of diehard fans across the country and a reputation as one of the most intoxicating, engaging concert experiences on the road.

“…Regardless of the time out, life on the road was a lot of work and very tiresome. When you spend that much time on the road, it takes a very special group of people who have a real sense of camaraderie and dedication to bring it everyday, like Leftover Salmon does.”

– Johnny Pfarr (LOS Tour Manager ’98-’05)


Have you ever been to a show and in the middle of song seen a Gorilla drive a golf cart out on stage? Have ever watched a lead singer take a parade of fans and half the band out of the theater and into the streets and back again, without missing a beat of the song? How many guitar players have you seen rip through a slide solo with a giant candy cane? What about a set break fashion parade of clothes made from duct tape and packing materials?

This hardly scratches the surface of the sort of antics one might see at a Leftover Salmon gathering, but it does shed some light on the not so seriousness of the band, which is one of their truest qualities.

More often than not the shows take on a Carnival like atmosphere of parades and costumes and exuberant dancing. It’s advised to jump in mind, body and soul right from the outset and let your self be absorbed. It’s sort of like going to a music camp of nothing but downright childlike FUN!! And in many ways, the band is the ring leaders for the musically insane. They thrive and flourish when they can whip a crowd into an absolute frenzy.


Leftover Salmon has never been afraid to boldly go where other bands dare not. Like no other band before them, they took a traditional bluegrass combination of instruments; added drums- turned up loud and took the music to another place. They are a group of very unassuming people with an enormous respect and appreciation for all sorts of music. Yet never do they have reservations about playing anything from bluegrass to mind benders, they’ll just grab the crowd with them and crawl into those spaces in between and beyond and with a smile on their face- they will fight their way out. Some musicians find the courage to take that leap every now and again; some never take it in their lives, yet Salmon lives in that moment.

“They are like no other act I have sat in with; their welcoming spirit and openness lay down the greatest pallet on which to create. They taught me that the stage does not just lie beneath the musicians; rather it encompasses the entire room or venue. Each person contributes to the waves of musical highs and lows, each person in the room adding a unique energy to the experience which steers the ship in and out of unscripted territory. The band understands how to reel you in, flip you around and deposit you more fulfilled than the start of your journey”, added Scotty Stoughton (singer Bonfire Dub / founder Samana Lounge)

As a result of their diversity Salmon is the rare band with a broad enough sound and a large enough repertoire to shape its set list to fit any crowd and any venue. They are a very unique in the fact that they can play both Folk and Rock festivals and over the years they’ve performed in small hole in the wall clubs, elegant theaters and spectacular outdoor amphitheaters.

“…they had done their homework and paid their dues like no other band I’ve worked with. Because of the their music skills, it made it possible to one minute invite a master to sit in and then the very next set destroy a classic with classic rock lyrics. It was a wide pallet from which they sampled but never without laughs and more importantly reverence for what came before. They were collectively good enough to be humble and I always loved them for it”, said Eric Abramsom (Director, Years In Your Ears).

It’s said that Salmon have special gill chloride cells that help to correctly regulate the balance between salt and water in their bodies. I think over the years the fans have had to adapt a keen ability to function in the same manner, balancing each musical genre that Leftover weaves in and out of so effortlessly. And it is this army of fans that is just as much responsible for the antics of the band. It is a traveling circus, and the fans are always open to bring new people into the fold.

“We didn’t have a ton of fans that followed the band to every show nationally, but instead fans that jumped on board for the different regions at a time. The fans always loved to participate in whatever way they could. Whether it was bringing some delicious goodies to the bus or throwing on a costume and joining in a parade, there was never a lack of a helping hand…”, commented Johnny Pfarr (Tour Manager ’98-’05)

The fans most certainly are a reflection of the band and its evident how much fun is being had- just look at the smiles on the faces of not only the characters on the stage, but all the people around you. They have an uncanny ability to make a room feel like a family, and through music to provide everyone there a small bit of hope, optimism, joy and laughter. I think that all this is the true magic of Salmon- their ability to play at a high musicianship level, but to do it while having an absolute fun-tastic time.

“…Sure it was a party, some nights as good as a party gets, but it was also a mission. It never mattered, the audience size, the condition of the band, the condition of the venue – the boys would play it like they meant it. Never saw that band “phone it in” EVER. Not something you can say about too many performers.” -Eric Abramsom

Breakin Thru

Despite a not so serious, care free side to the bands live performance, their musical talents are still hard to suppress. By the turn of the millennium Vince, Drew and Mark had been playing together for a stretch of ten years and although the lineup around them changed from time to time, featuring a few different instruments here and there- it seemed that a quality dynamic had emerged between the three.

By the late ‘90’s, they had built a reputation as a super fun, road tested live band, but their studio production was also coming into its own. Salmon released three albums between 1995-99, Ask the Fish (95), Euphoria (97), and the Nashville Sessions (99).

Ask the fish gave old fans and new, a taste of the evolution of their live shows. While Euphoria followed up that momentum, but accented their song writing skills and their sometimes overlooked musicianship. For their next album, the timing was right and the stars were aligned, so they decided to expand their sound- with a little help from their friends.

The widely-heralded Nashville Sessions was a star studded affair that paired Salmon with an A-list of Nashville’s most notable session players, including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Reese Wynans, John Cowan and Sally Van Meter. Country legends Earl Scruggs, Waylon Jennings and Lucinda Williams also contributed, as did many of the bands friends from the road, including Blues Traveler’s John Popper, John Bell from Widespread Panic and Big Head Todd’s, Todd Park Mohr.

As the millennium closed in- it felt as if the band could only get better and do virtually whatever they wanted to embark on. They were riding a wave of soulful singing and joyous dancing, country fried hillbilly throw-downs to inter galactic space swims. Their musicianship had blossomed, their show energy barometer was off the charts and the growing number of LoSers was exponential.

But again, they were confronted with change.

A rotation of band members was nothing new to Leftover Salmon. In the early years they juggled bass players and drummers in search for the perfect fit. By the mid to late nineties, they had undergone a few more changes with the departures of Glenn Keefe on Bass, Joe Jogerst (accordion) and Michael Wooten on drums.

Despite the changes, it seemed that they had actually become crafty at inserting new members, usually parting in mutual ways that left the family door open. Not only did they find a niche in keeping the integrity of Leftover Salmon alive, many times they made it better.

Yet when Bassist Ty North and Drummer Jeff Sipe decided to leave the band at the end of 2000, there was a bit of caution as too where they might be headed. They had been riding a wave of success from steadfast touring and with recent album success they had a growing fan base that might question the stability of the band.

Could the band really withstand the restructuring of their entire rhythm section again?

When they emerged from Planet Salmon in August of 2000, the questions had been answered with not only a new rhythm section consisting of Greg Garrison on Bass and Jose Martinez on Drums, but they solidified the lineup even further by adding a full time keyboard player in Bill McKay from the Derek Trucks Band.

Yet again the band proved to flourish in adaptable waters. The new lineup became another powerful configuration of the band, one that would take their music to yet another level. It was an uncanny skill inserting new members into the lineup and morphing these new contributors into their success, but they seemed to do it in stride, while all the time continuing to move forward with a smile.

Weary traveler

So the band had revamped the lineup, put out their most critically acclaimed album to date and looked to ride the wave of millennium momentum into future tours, albums, festivals- what have you. It looked as if they could do no wrong.

But in August of 2001 the wave crashed, as founding member and brother, Mark Vann was diagnosed with melanoma cancer. In a bizarre twist of timing less than a month later, the entire country was in the midst of some of our more crazy times with the advent of the 9/11 attacks. Everything seemed to be upside down.

The band responded with what they instinctively know how to do, gathering a star studded cast in November for a four night ‘Mark benefit’ run on the Front Range of Colorado. New Years came in a more subdued manner, and for a moment or two a very courageous and very sick Mark Vann took to the stage with his friends for the very last time. On March 4th 2002 the band was dealt the devastating blow of the passing of Mark Vann.

This time the loss was too great. There was a gap and a hole that was missing from what they did and it looked as if this could be the end.

“The power triangle of Vince, Drew and Mark was a major key to the band’s success. All three were driven and each brought his strengths and weaknesses to the table that formed a complete monster, ready to take over wherever they traveled. Like a stool you stand on, it was a balanced system that became hard to maintain once one of the legs was removed”, Film maker and friend of the band Eric Abramson added on the subject.

But Mark had the band promise that they would continue on after his passing, so that what they had built together over the years could still be presented to the Salmon faithful. It must have been the hardest thing for them to do and my hat is off to them for marching forth.

To ease the immediate pain of returning to the road the band invited many friends to sit in with them. The Reverend Jeff Mosier, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Tony Furtado and Matt Flinner were all willing to help the band continue until they found a more permanent banjo player.

Although he is no longer regularly playing with the band, it is a real testament to Noam Pikelny for stepping in and assuming the banjo reigns for a couple years. It is not a very enviable spot to be in, replacing someone as talented and revered as Mark was. In a way it was similar to the Widespread Panic situation, where George McConnell tried to fill a huge void left by the passing of Michael Houser or even similar to the Dead over the years and the various people who have filled the spot where Jerry once stood.

But you make the choices and you try to move on. You try and push the music furthur. And make no mistake that in the wake of Mark’s passing there was some jaw dropping, incredible music that was created.

“I always commended the band and family for keeping it going in accordance with Mark’s wishes but always knew deep down that the band would never be the same as when Mark was pickin’. They managed to make some amazing music after Mark’s time with us, but something shifted in the dynamic of the operation”, said Abramson.

“Mark’s passing was an extremely difficult time for all and now looking back, I’m still in awe how Vince and Drew got up on stage 4 days after the memorial and played. Mark had been sick for the 6 months leading up to his death, but I don’t believe anybody thought we would be on the road that quickly after. However, Mark was very clear before passing, that he wanted the band to go on. And that’s exactly what we did”, said Johnny Pfarr.

They did continue on with Mark’s wishes, touring from ’02-‘04 and managed to have quite a productive stretch despite the untimely passing of Mark in spring of 2002. They signed with Compass Records and released Live (pronounced liv) in ‘02, a live album designed as a tribute to Mark Vann. In 2003 they took part in a critically acclaimed tour with Del McCoury and followed that with the release of ‘O Cracker Where art Thou w/ Cracker ’ in 03 and their last album to date, Leftover Salmon in ’04.

But it became obvious that at some point the band would have to do some healing away from each other and that signal became clear that it was time to hang ‘em up for awhile. So with an amazing farewell four-night run at the Fox Theater in Boulder to end 2004, the band stepped away into a hiatus that left the Salmon faithful with 27 months of no Leftovers.

In November of 2006 an award-nominated documentary film of Leftover Salmon, titled Years In Your Ears, was released on DVD by film maker Eric Abramson. For fans of the band it was a time of reflection. For the band itself, it was time for long awaited side projects to begin, to take shape and to blossom. The music would clearly go on and the healing would continue for years to come- as for Leftover Salmon, the LoSers would just have to wait.

Just when you think it can’t get no BETTER…Than it DOES…..!

Leftover Salmon marked their unofficial return to the stage with a performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival on Sunday, June 24th 2007, billed as “Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman and Friends.” They were introduced by Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band with the line, “No matter what the program says, we all know what’s going on here.”

They went on and played six performances as Leftover Salmon in 2007, including two performances at High Sierra Music Festival, in Quincy CA, the All Good Festival in West Virginia, as well as Denver and Boulder, Colorado shows in late December. They have continued to play a few select shows in the summer and fall of both 2008 and 2009.

But now WHAT?

After twenty years as this entity known as Leftover Salmon, what could this band possibly do next?

They could have called it a career at the last album and left Weary Traveler as their swan song and rode off into the night after the Fox farewell- with perfectly fitting lyrics. But they stuck that hidden reprise on the end of the disc…..and we all thought well…….maybe it’s not over yet. Besides, retirement is no longer believable.

But now after a few years of festival performances and random shows, there are a lot of hard definitive questions that could be asked by the fans.

How much will they tour in the upcoming years?

Other than festivals could there be a series of little runs of just intimate Salmon shows?

Is the band ready to announce a permanent banjo player?

Is it Matt Flinner? Or is there some other player out there that is destined to be teamed up with them?

And what about writing new material together and recording a new album?

 Understanding where the band is at or what they are about to do next has never been easy. Frankly it’s like swimming upstream. But I posed the question to management to elicit a response and well….

“What the future holds? I really couldn’t say. The one thing I’ve learned early on when I started working with Salmon was it’s here for the moment. Future plans, what’s that? As much as I look to the future with this band it usually ends up as “what happens, happens”. Fortunately things usually fall in to place and some things no matter how far in advance you plan, you end up in situations that you had no control over anyways”, said John Joy of the Management team.

I would like to think that this could be the most exciting time for the band in many of years. With a positive New Years run and a culmination of Salmon and Friends reaffirming and celebrating what they have done over the years- I would think the band is back to the place that it can do basically what it wants.

Anyone who has followed this band over the course of their migration, misses Mark Vann and the amazing talent that he brought to the music. But, to use a phrase from the band- This is the time to bring the whole extended family back together with Great American Taxi and Emmitt-Nershi Band leading the way.

If anything, the solo projects have made both Drew and Vince even more multi-dimensional musicians. With current banjo player Matt Flinner ‘Skynard’ also a multi talented musician it is quite possible that a there is an opportunity for a new and different dynamic to evolve.

Could we be seeing a re-birth of the spirit of Salmon?

“I think it has taken time apart, for everyone to realize how special this band is together. In my mind, the key to longevity with any band that’s been around as long as Salmon is balance. Salmon is becoming more and more in a balanced state and I think it’s in the healthiest state I’ve ever known them to be in, since 2001”, said Joy.

So again, where does this band head next?

“I can tell the guys are having fun on stage. That’s the most important part. I don’t think the future of Salmon is just up to the band. I think the fans have a lot to do with it also. It’s a partnership at this point, as long as the fans are having fun and the band is having fun, the future of future shows is a given. This band has some of the greatest fans, so I’d say we’re looking pretty good”, Joy added.

Only time will tell how long the Salmon will be running, so let’s be thankful for the past twenty years and embrace all that the future allows.

Just keep walkin, unplug that telephone and dance on your head. Blow away these troubled times, cause on the other side the five is alive. Everything is round on this mountain top and you know what?

It couldn’t be Better!

A free 2 CD download was compiled from unreleased archive recordings. It is available now on jambase.com in a four part feature series. It covers the span of the last 20 years. Give it a listen, you decide how alive the band was then and is today. Trbet analiz

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