-Yankee Doodle Bouillabaisse
-Putting a fresh spin on traditional music, Leftover Salmon cooks up a tasty new American Folklore
by Lee Abraham
Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass could be the next big thing. It's fun to say -and- easy to dance to. Carefully engineered by a team of five world class tone scientists and rhythmologists, slamgrass was originally developed to entertain a particularly hardy breed of partying fool during the snowed-in ski town madness of Colorado's winters. It's impossible to keep something this good a secret for long though, slamgrass has also become the rage on the booming summer circuit of music and camping festivals around the country. Cowboys, hippies, truck drivers and hoo-doo-moon swamp rockers of all descriptions dig this slamgrass stuff.
Haven't heard of slamgrass? Does the name -Leftover Salmon- ring a bell? No? OK, here's the story. -Leftover Salmon-, a high-spirited Rocky Mountain quintet, coined "slamgrass" to describe the bluegrass based Yankee-doodle bouillabaisse they've cooked up. Along with smatterings of zydeco, rock, mountain boogie and acoustic blues, the genre-juggling jamboree and hootenanny has been putting a new spin on traditional music over the past decade.
As much as slamgrass is a merging of musical styles, -Leftover Salmon- came together as a merging of bands. In '89, lead vocalist and guitar player Vince Herman was leader of the -Left Hand String Band- and multi-instrumentalist Drew Emmitt (mandolin, fiddle, flute, electric guitar and vocals) had a band called the -Salmonheads-.
"There were people in each band that couldn't make it to some gigs," says bass player Tye North. "So they decided to merge the bands -and- the names." For the record, North wasn't in either of the two morphed bands. He joined LoS in '93 at the tender of age of twenty, after hanging out with the band at the Oregon County Fair. He's been on the road with them ever since.
Now 25, North has seen the popularity of slamgrass skyrocket. "People come to our shows because they know they're going to dance," says North. "They'll also come away knowing a person or two more than they did before they came. We're not part of a 'scene,' we're part of a 'community.'"
And the community is growing. Strong sales of -Bridges to Bert-, the -LoS- '93 debut paved the way for -Ask the Fish-, a '95 release recorded live at the Fox Theater, in the -LoS's- spawning ground, Boulder, Colorado. Swimming upstream as an independent band gave way to going with the flow when -LoS- signed a deal with Hollywood Records. -Euphoria-, a critically acclaimed studio effort was released in '96, and it continues to be a strong seller. There are plans to return to the studio in the "next few months," but in the mean time, the band continues to crisscross the country on a never-ending tour.
Routinely selling out venues on both coasts, -LoS- appeals to a wider spectrum than most bands on the touring circuit. "Not only do we get a lot of younger -and- older hippie types," says North, "but we get a lot of bluegrass fans of all ages."
A broad base of slamgrassing "Salmonheads" around the country show up to performances wherever -LoS- plays. This past summer was particularly wild. One of the crazier nights was the "Autumn Equinox Festival," in Brandywine, Maryland. With over 5,000 people camping on 80 acres of private land for three days, -LoS- was in their element and fine harvest season form. Under a starlit sky in the rolling green countryside, -LoS- whooped it up with the capacity crowd. The band's hootin' and hollerin' put a charge into the audience like a rhythm rancher kick starting a cosmic cattle drive. Cracking their musical bullwhip with well-practiced proficiency, -LoS- stampeded through deep gorge grooves and spine-tingling mountain melodies during their wild and wooly set. Although firmly in control, -LoS- excels at maintaining an anything-can-happen edge onstage.
"Part of the group's dynamics is sort of a crazy, high-speed musical acrobatics," says North. "It has a lot to do with improvising, but it has a lot to do with vocabulary too. It's not rehearsed and it's not totally improvised."
Regardless of the musical language they're speaking at any given time, chances are that there's going to be some bluegrass in the mix. While all the members of -LoS- have backgrounds in traditional music, Mark Vann on banjo "is more into bluegrass than anybody else I've ever known," says North.
Drummers are not found in traditional bluegrass bands. As much as any other aspect of the -LoS- sound, syncopated beats and hot-pocket rhythms between the drums and bass give the music its inescapable danceability. "As a bass player, it's so much fun for me to play with Jeff (Sipe). He's not only one of the greatest drummers in the world, but his sense of humor and everything else is just wonderful." Quick pickin' has always been part of bluegrass and Drew Emmit is the resident speed demon. "In addition to being a prolific songwriter," says North, "Drew's got an Indy-500 right hand, the guy is the Mario Andretti of the mandolin."
And then there's frontman Vince Herman. "The extroverted introvert," explains North, "a mixture of leader and clown." One minute Herman is playing spoons on a traditional washboard slung around his neck, the next he's using the spoons to play North's bass, -while- North is playing it. At any given moment, Herman might hoist and dance with the head of Mayor McCheese, a chuckle-generating stage prop that mysteriously appears with -LoS- from time to time. "I'm not at liberty to discuss the head of Mayor McCheese," advises North when asked about how the fast food icon's oversized plaster-of-paris noggin finds its way onstage.
High-spirited hijynx are nothing new to North. He grew up on the road, knockin' around the clubs and honky-tonks with his dad, a drummer for the 60's folk legends -The Holy Modal Rounders-. "There were some crazy folks in that group," laughs North. "In some ways they make us look quite tame. And that's saying something."
Donít' get the wrong idea though, these guys are not jokesters -all- the time. "Save Or Wild Salmon," a coalition of fishing, conservation and energy advocates whose main goal is to preserve the natural habitat of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, is the band's pet project. They've also been involved in numerous ecological causes in Colorado and elsewhere.
Although they've toured incessantly for the past few years, it's been ? since -LoS- brought their travelling show through the neon city. In an effort to make up for lost time, -LoS- booked gigs on two consecutive nights. "I can't wait to play Vegas," says North. "We get two chances to blow the roof off!"