Leftover Salmon Interview: Jazz, Jambands and John Hartford
To say that Leftover Salmon has persevered over the past 25 years would be an understatement. Withstanding a changing musical landscape, a shuffling of some key players and the loss of a dear friend and founder, Leftover Salmon has emerged as one of the leaders in today’s live music scene.
In the midst of a summer filled with festivals large and small, as well as individual engagements and a unique new spin on a festival in North Carolina, Leftover Salmon had a stop closing out the main stage on day-one of Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire, WI. For this Leftover Salmon interview, we caught up with Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, Andy Thorn and Greg Garrison and discussed jazz music, skinny jeans, jam bands and John Hartford:
Evolving Musical Landscape
Leftover Salmon has recently added Erik Deutsch to its revolving door on keyboards, filling the seat vacated by legendary Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne. (Payne recently left his brief stint with the band to join the Doobie Brothers on tour.) Erik brings his own impressive resumé to the table, and with it a strong influence of modern jazz music.
Deutsch is not alone in this distinctive musical background – banjo player Andy Thorn studied jazz guitar at UNC, and bassist Greg Garrison, among other degrees and accolades, holds a DMA in Jazz Studies from the University of Colorado.
“Musically, with Erik…we kind of have a common language,” said Garrison. “The challenge is, how do you fit that sound, the kind of jazzy sound, into the context of what Leftover Salmon is? Sometimes it’s sticking a square peg in a round hole for sure, but we’re getting better at at least getting closer to an oval peg, maybe. Sometimes it works, though, and it’s fun. It’s a challenge to make the two worlds coexist.”
Guitarist and leading personality, Vince Herman responded by adding “that’s the nature of Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass music…” Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass is a self-imposed description the band has often used in an attempt to describe their unparalleled sound on stage.
When Andy Thorn remarked that this moniker doesn’t include “Jazz”, Garrison was quick to amend the title to “Slamgrazz.”
“Grazz! That’s pretty good!” agreed Herman. “What is jazz, man? To me, jazz is just a willingness to improvise on an American music form, you know? I think we do that all the time.”
Further illustrating Herman and Garrison’s sentiments, when Leftover Salmon took to the Blue Ox stage that evening, we were treated to a 3-piece breakdown with Garrison, Deutsch, and drummer Alwyn Robinson. Robinson’s diverse musical background and experimental take on bluegrass drumming has helped to propel Leftover Salmon into a new era. The energy created by Garrison, Deutsch and Robinson, whose jams have become a staple of this tour, certainly lends itself to Vince Herman’s definition of Jazz.
“His playing is pretty modern, you know,” said Herman of Deutsch, “and with him in the band, fully two-thirds of the band wear skinny jeans.”
It should be noted that Erik Deutsch was not available for this interview to defend his wardrobe. However, his jeans did seem to fit nicely when he later took to the stage.
Hair Bands, or Bluegrass For Beginners
As a Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrazz band, Leftover Salmon gives difficulty to those who try to classify their sound. One of the labels sometimes hurriedly slapped onto their eclectic blend of musical styles is “Jam Band.” Such a broad stroke doesn’t do justice to many of the artists that it has been applied to, and Leftover Salmon is certainly no exception.
“Jam bands just means that people with hair are gonna be there,” says Vince. “I don’t know if there’s any musical thing that ties together jam bands.”
Yet, there is a unifying factor of sorts that is bringing together fans of many different types of music. Festival line-ups, such as Blue Ox, are bringing in acts like Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass and Leftover Salmon – bands with very different sounds, yet very similar and overlapping fan bases.
Jazz is not just for brunch, you know? A lot of people think the best thing about jazz is the hollandaise on the eggs benedict, but it goes way beyond that.
It’s all about the … banjo?
We looked for a musical tie-in that could be a common denominator amongst such varying styles of music.
“Clearly the banjo,” Herman offered up, to the immediate agreement of Andy Thorn.
Garrison disagreed. “There’s probably a bass in all those bands.”
“Yeah, but no one notices the bass!” Vince jokingly jabbed.
On the contrary, the bass was very noticeable that evening, and every evening on stage, as Leftover Salmon decisively features each and every performer on stage at some point throughout their show.
“Yeah, I don’t know what it is,” Herman said as we got back on topic. “A deep appreciation of roots music, I guess.”
“They’re definitely all gateway bluegrass bands, too, you know what I mean?” said Garrison, referring to the Blue Ox lineup we had been discussing.
“Bluegrass for beginners,” Herman concluded.
I might have lost my lunch box, but I’m still here!
A week prior to Blue Ox, Leftover Salmon appeared at The John Hartford Memorial Festival in Bean Blossom, IN. The influence of John Hartford on modern bluegrass music is undeniable. It is difficult to attend a music festival with even a handful of “bluegrass” artists and not hear a Hartford cover or two.
Salmon’s Blue Ox set included a cover of John Hartford’s Steam Powered Aeroplane, with Drew Emmitt powerfully taking the vocal lead.
When asked to speak on the influence Hartford has had on them as musicians and songwriters, Emmitt was first to respond. “That’s a hard question to answer easily and quickly, I can say that! All of us go way back with Hartford, for sure.”
Drew Emmitt is capable of infusing the stage with energy, both figuratively and literally. When he rips into his electric instruments he easily turns the show into a rock concert. His mastery of several instruments and his blurring of the lines of genres in his playing is right out of the John Hartford playbook.
He [John Hartford] told me that our version of ‘Boogie’ was his favorite version of one of his songs that anybody had ever recorded!
“I started listening to Hartford records when I was a teenager. I got to open for him in Boulder, with my old band Lefthand Stringband, years and years ago and ended up in a jam with him in the dressing room. That was amazing!”
He thought for a moment, then shared with us one of his intimate experiences with the legendary musician, just a few weeks before Hartford succumbed to Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in June of 2001.
“He told me some pretty heavy things in that little session there. He just really opened up to me.”
As Emmitt relayed his tale, the other members of the band listened intently. Their love and respect for John Hartford was evident in their interest and awe over Drew’s story.
“What he told me was really interesting. He said ‘I’ve never looked under the hood before.’ That’s a direct quote. He said ‘it made me really look under the hood,’ because he couldn’t play anymore, and that was his whole way of expressing himself.” (Hartford had lost the use of his hands towards the end of his battle with cancer.)
“He was really frail, and he was obviously on his way out, but he was very lucid and very present. I could have sat in that room with him for hours.”
Emmitt’s quiet introspection quickly turned to a grin when he said, “He also told me that our version of ‘Boogie’ was his favorite version of one of his songs that anybody had ever recorded! He said ‘You guys got it!’ ”
The Future of Festivals?
Leftover Salmon has taken their bold, innovative approach to music and applied it to the experiences they offer to their fans. They recently played a 3-night run in Asheville, NC, appearing in several venues throughout the town. In March the band successfully held their second engagement at the legendary Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, selling out the hotel for an incredible intimate weekend of music.
We asked about these experiences, and others, to see if this is an intentional re-thinking of the music festival experience.
“I think so,” replied Greg Garrison. “While we are always trying to pick up new fans and reach a younger generation, we know that our fans are kind of aging along with us, and people sometimes like to go somewhere and stay in a hotel.”
Or, in the case of The Stanley, stay in an iconic haunted hotel nestled in one of the most beautiful locations in the world.
It isn’t necessarily in the summer, in the heat, in the rain, in the mud … there’s a little more of your creature comforts, for us and the fans.
During these engagements, Vince Herman can typically be found picking off-stage almost as often as he is on the stage. “You get to settle in for a little while, and make the most of the festy opportunity,” Herman says.
“Everyone gets to choose their own adventure,” added Garrison. “You’re not just in one place, everybody doing the same thing. You all come together for the shows and for the music and everything, but you have a lot of different activities that you can kind of do for yourself.”
The band went on to enthusiastically confirm that we can expect a return to The Stanley Hotel, as well as an extended engagement in Chicago, similar to the Funkn’ Bluegrass Bash held in February at the Vic Theater.
Masters of the Stage
Thursday evening rolled around at Blue Ox Music Festival, and all of the attendees were primed and ready for Leftover Salmon. Those that have seen them before know that there is nothing like a Salmon show. The energy on stage, the chemistry between all of the band members, and the mastery of their instruments is hard to top at any music festival.
The band members’ individual personalities are readily evident on stage, as they were earlier in the day during our interview.
Vince Herman is the frontman – not that others don’t take the lead effortlessly, but he is the larger-than-life personality leading the charge. The party doesn’t officially start until Vince Herman shouts out, “Festivaaaallllll!”
Drew Emmitt sits back and relaxes, then opens up his mandolin and captivates everyone in the crowd and along side him, as he did with his touching stories of John Hartford this afternoon.
Greg Garrison is the reliable rhythm, bringing everyone back on track when things start to wander.
Andy Thorn, well Andy just brilliantly layers beautiful banjo licks over everything, and sometimes throws a curveball at you, as when he sang Prince’s “Seven.”
Erik Deutsch is the new guy, patiently waiting his turn, getting more comfortable every time, and completely shredding it when he gets the chance.
Alwyn Robinson is the steady beat, keeping the whole thing on track, yet always having a few tricks up his sleeve, as he did at Blue Ox when he took lead vocals on Gary Clark Jr.’s “Don’t Owe You a Thang.”
Together, they are the hottest live band in whatever you want to call their genre.
Bluegrass? Newgrass? Jam Band?
Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrazz?
Just when you think you know Leftover Salmon, you don’t.
Leftover Salmon finished their Blue Ox set with Pasta On The Mountain, a rare fan favorite that sums up everything about this band far better than these words have. It is unexpected, funky and fun – full of improvisation, yet performed by incredibly gifted, well-crafted musicians that are clearly enjoying every second of what they are doing.
The band returned to the stage for an encore, for which they chose the bluegrass classic “Aint Gonna Work Tomorrow.”
Before going into the fitting sendoff, Vince Herman left us with these parting words, that couldn’t be more appropriate:
“That’s right folks, it is festival season.
You can live in a tent for the rest of the summer.
Just blow off your rent, man, just move out of your house…
Festy up! Sing your song real loud…”
BONUS: THE FESTY FIVE!
The Festy Five is a quick-fire, short answer round with which we like to conclude our interviews.
When we hit Leftover Salmon with the Festy Five, you won’t believe some of their response! (Hint: We may have gotten Vince to sing his high school class theme song!)