“It’s not like we positioned ourselves to be a jam band over a bluegrass band,” said guitarist and band co-founder Vince Herman in a recent phone interview. “We were just guys from ski towns trying to make a living. We managed to come out with something, I’m not sure what the title is. We call it ‘polyethnic Cajun slamgrass.’ ”
Nor was the Leftover Salmon sound calculated to appeal to the fans that had followed the band members’ previous groups.
“When we first started doing this people were like ‘really, you guys play bluegrass with drums and electric instruments? Really? Who’s going to like that?’” said fiddle and mandolin player Drew Emmitt, the band’s other co-founder, in a separate phone interview.
Well, it turns out a whole lot of people like it, and anyone at this year’s Papa Joe’s Banjo-B-Que Music Festival will get the chance to hear the band in the Saturday, May 24, lineup at 7:40 p.m. Saturday admission is $30 and gates open at 11 a.m. See banjobque.com for details.
Formed in 1989, Leftover Salmon began expanding its range outside Colorado a couple years later, developing an ever-growing legion of followers who would turn up each time the band hit a town.
By the mid-1990s, Leftover Salmon was signed to Hollywood Records, releasing its signature album Euphoria in 1997 and putting out four more albums on the Disney-owned label.
By 2005, when they went on a nearly five-year hiatus, Leftover Salmon had a national following and inspired dozens of bands to follow in its footsteps.
“All I can really say is when we started the Leftover Salmon thing in 1989, there was nobody else doing anything like us,” Emmitt said. “I think we inspired bands to do something similar. What we were doing is going out in a school bus and playing shows. We didn’t have a label or anything like that. We were just doing it.”
Leftover Salmon (which also includes bassist Greg Garrison, drummer Jose Martinez and banjo player Andy Thorn) also inspired others to combine bluegrass and old-time string band sounds with rock-rooted jams. The ‘polyethnic Cajun slamgrass’ label is intended to sum up the band’s mixture of bluegrass, rock, country and Cajun/zydeco. But bluegrass remains at the root of the sound.
“We’ve definitely played bluegrass most of our life and have gotten to play with some of our heroes like Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Del McCoury,” Emmitt said. “We’ve been accepted by those guys and accepted by the progressive bluegrass community. We didn’t become a jam band and learn to play bluegrass. It was the other way around.”
The bluegrass foundation allows Leftover Salmon to play the summer bluegrass festival circuit. The jam band aspect landed it on the H.O.R.D.E. tour in the mid-’90s and lets it play venues across the country.
As is the case with every jam band from the Grateful Dead onward, Leftover Salmon plays a different show each night.
“We have quite a catalog of songs to draw from and try to mix it up,” Emmitt said. “We’re playing quite a few from (2012 album) Aquatic Hitchhiker and the new release we just put out this year digitally. But we try to rotate songs as much as possible to keep it interesting – for us and the audience. That’s kind of a jam band tradition.”
So how did the band come up with its unforgettable, perhaps regrettable name?
As 1989 turned into 1990, Left Hand String Band, a bluegrass outfit led by Emmitt, joined forces with jug band the Salmon Heads, led by Herman, to play a Boulder-area New Year’s Eve Show. They needed a name and quick. So they took Salmon from the Salmon Heads, the Left of the string band, added Over and, viola, Leftover Salmon.
They didn’t expect the band or the name to last and had no clue that 24 years later they’d be hailed as the architects of jam grass.
“If we’d have had any idea we could have come up with a much better name,” Herman said. “We thought it was going to be one gig when we started. Now we’re stuck with it.”