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Salmon

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Artist: Leftover Salmon
Track: Let’s Give A Party
Album: Live (pronounced ‘Liv’)

So I finally got around to finish watching Years In Your Ears a documentary about the Colorado band Leftover Salmon. It was pretty decent. Could have may be a little shorter and may be a little more focused, but over all it was pretty good.

Now, chances are you’re wondering who Leftover Salmon were/are (technically, the band is “on hiatus” but there hasn’t been any movement from the band, outside solo gigs, since the end of 04)

Salmon were a force of nature. The legend goes that the band formed one day in Colorado after members of the newgrass (progressive bluegrass for you city folk) outfit Left Hand String Band, led by the amazing songwriter and musician Drew Emmit and featuring the wiz kid banjo player Mark Vann, did a gig with a couple of the members of the cajun/zydeco/calypso group The Salmon Heads, lead by the force of nature known as Vince Herman. The gig apparently went so well, they did it again, and again, and again, until they finally said ‘fuck it’ and started Leftover Salmon.

The band’s answer to what their music sounded like was to coin the phrase, ‘poly ethnic cajun slamgrass.’ Which is actually surprisingly accurate. The thing to understand when discussing the band’s ‘sound’ is to realize that these were not a bunch of guys just throwing a bunch of styles into a melting pot. So many bands these days talk about ‘crossing genres’ and how they ‘can’t be pigeon holed’ which usually translates to them half assing there way through a bunch of different areas but never actually doing justice to any of the genres they touch. Salmon on the other hand were students of the styles of music they played. And so when they played a style of music, they did it for real and with love and heart. Those styles were mainly centered around bluegrass, newgrass, cajun, zydeco, calypso, with a smattering of rock here and there. Though other genres popped up now and then (a little reggae here, a little bossa nova there, may be even some polka now and then). Another way to look at it is to remember something an Art teacher once told me about how Picaso could get away with doing things like Cubism because he was already known to be an extremely talented artist. People paid attention to what he did because they knew he wasn’t covering up for his own lack of talent. Salmon were the same way. Yeah, the fused genres together and played with the acceptable way things were supposed to be done, but they could also play straight if they wanted to or needed to. And when they played straight, there tended to be a lot better then many of their peers*.

The styles that the band played in are only part of the equation though. To be a fan of Salmon was to see Salmon live. And to see Salmon live, was to walk away a convert. To describe a Salmon show, I’ll ask you to imagine the most wild new years party you’ve ever been to, then combine that with a full blown New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, now shove all of that, with out loosing any intensity or insanity, into a 3 to 4 hour show filled with all of your friends. Even the strangers are friends at a Salmon show. Don’t believe me? On more then one occasion the band would suddenly decide to hold a parade, and so they would get down off the stage, while still playing their instruments (gotta love string music), and parade around the club with the audience in tow. Then they would lead the parade right out the front door and down the street, may be around the block, before heading back into the club and finishing the show**. During the film one person tells a story of how an impromptu Mombo Line went from the club where the band was playing, down the street, into another bar, then back out onto the street and back to the club where the band was playing. All while singing and playing and doing the Mombo. Another story involves the band getting kicked out of their hotel on NYE for doing an impromptu show in the third floor elevator lobby after they’d already done a NYE show that night.

To say that Salmon shows were unpredictable would be stating the obvious. A lot of that had to do with Vince. Part improvisational stand up comedian, part vaudeville performer, anything and everything could come from Vince at any moment in time. One of the things that I used to use to woo new fans was some of the more outlandish ‘covers’ that Vince used to do. These included Stairway To Gilligan, which was the music of Stairway To Heaven with improvised lyrics about Gilligan’s Island. Another was Sweet Home Margaritaville, which was the music of Sweet Home Alabama, with improvised lyrics about Jimmy Buffet. Now, this is 95 or 96 were talking about. There wasn’t any mashups back then, and definitely no one doing it live on the spot. I remember the first time I saw Salmon, I spent the next week with a perma grin on my face muttering to myself, ‘they did a bluegrass version of Paint It Black.’

As an aside, probably my most memorable Salmon show was an outdoor gig they did in Charlottesville, VA. They played at this little outdoor amphitheater that the town has downtown. It was about 50 degrees out that day and there was a steady drizzle all day. I ended up dancing in the rain through out the entire show in a t-shirt. After the show someone pointed out that I was bleeding. And when I looked down, sure enough there was a huge red splotch from where my blood had mixed with the rain water that had completely soaked my shirt by this point. I also remember Vince almost getting arrested, during the show, for enticing kids to slide down a hill next to the stage (and tearing up the nice manicured grass in the process) and almost going for a slide himself. The cops showed up just as he was taking his guitar off so that he could run up to the top of the hill. He saw the cops and put his guitar back on. That was also the show where, during a drum and bass solo, Tye North, their bassist at the time, lifted up his bass over the drum kit and Mike Wooten, their drummer at the time, started hitting the bass strings with his drum sticks. I remember it was kind of funny and sounded pretty cool. Oh, and I wasn’t alone in dancing around in the rain. There was probably a good 75 to a hundred of us out there in the rain. Some were smart enough to bring rain gear (it was dry when I left DC that morning) others weren’t. Point of fact. Dancing in the rain with a whole mess of other people is a lot of fun.

This all probably doesn’t mean much to you though. Since most of you are probably part of the unfortunate majority who have never experienced the whirl wind of a Salmon show. And even at the peek of my writing abilities, I don’t think I could do them justice. Partly because I don’t know if I’ve ever been that good of a writer, partly because you wouldn’t believe me. You would likely come to the conclusion that I was exaggerating, either intentionally or not, or that I remembered it as more grandiose then it truly was. The thing is, there was never a reason to exaggerate when it came to describing Salmon, and I doubt it is possible to make Salmon any more grandiose then they all ready were.

I will acknowledge my limitations though, and bring this post to a close, with a ‘boy howdy!’ and a ‘FEEEESTIVAAAAL’

EDIT: As I was reminded by Church in the comments. You can get a taste of what Salmon were like by downloading a show or two from archive.org. You can find their listing here.

* To give you an idea of the talent in the band. Over the years that I followed the band I had the good fortune of befriending Bryant Vann, Mark’s father. At one point Bryant told me a story of how Mark was originally a self taught banjo player. After Mark had been picking for awhile though, Bryant decided that he probably should get Mark some professional lessons. So he hired a guy to teach Mark to play (Mark grew up in the DC area. Over the years a lot of folks have moved out of the Appalachian Mtn communities and into the DC area seeking work with the federal government. Until around the turn of the century, one of the two NPR stations in the area was predominantly a bluegrass station, including a three hour show during afternoon rush hour and a good 6+ hours on Sunday of bluegrass and country gospel. In other words, we’ve got some good pickers around here) The guy gave Mark his first lesson. When it was over the guy walked up to Bryant and admitted that while he would be happy to keep taking Bryant’s money, he felt compelled to mention that he was in fact learning more from Mark then Mark was from him.

Another story I heard from Bryant involves a well known bluegrass musician, whose name escapes me at the moment, walking across the field at the Merle Watson Bluegrass Festival (one of the premiere American roots music festivals in the world). It was in between acts on the main stage and the sound guys were playing a CD over the sound system. The musician remarked to a friend that he didn’t realize that Bela Fleck (considered by many to be one of the best banjo players alive) had a new album out. Turns out he didn’t, the sound guys were playing Salmon and what he was hearing as Bela was in fact Mark taking a break.

Sadly, Mark passed away in 2002. The band continued, at Mark’s request, for another two years before taking a break.

** While I never had the chance to be part of one of the Salmon parades, I did take part a parade during the encore of a Hypnotic Clambake show. It was at the 8X10 Club in Baltimore and involved walking out of the club and around the block, before coming back into the club. I can report that this is incredibly fun to do and should be done much more often then it is.

Written by Matt

February 19th, 2007 at 12:38 am

Posted in jamband