Jamgrass legends Leftover Salmon make their return to The Egg on December 2. Bassist Greg Garrison spoke with NYSMusic about the group’s first time back in Albany since the 2003, the group’s influence on the jamgrass scene, their songwriting process and release of the live album 25.
For fans of bluegrass and its speedier cousin, jamgrass, the welcoming atmosphere can be felt as “a happy, fun festival vibe,” as Garrison describes it. The upbeat, progressive improv nature of Yonder Mountain String Band and Greensky Bluegrass can trace itself back to Leftover Salmon, whose unique genre of Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass is an instant jolt of energy to audiences around the country. Bringing the audience to their feet at The Egg will be thanks in part to drummer Alwyn Robinson, a role often not filled in typical bluegrass acts. “The fact we have always had a drummer and looked to find a well-versed and good drummer, and with our current drummer Alwyn Robinson from Brooklyn, kept up with the tradition of energetic drummers that we’ve had,” noted Garrison.
There are of course other bands who preceded Leftover Salmon in their contributions to the jamgrass scene. Hot Rize, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Newgrass Revival paved the way for Leftover, marking a lineage that dates back to the early 1980s, connecting current jamgrass-descendants with their predecessors. Over the years, Garrison has seen bands come and go, and the sound changed ever so slightly over time. “The faces and names of the bands have changed, and some have done better than others, like Railroad Earth and String Cheese Incident, who are paving the way for how far you can push the genre as far as crowd and sound. The ones who stay a little truer to roots – Yonder Mountain String Band and Greensky Bluegrass and the like, you could listen to them 10 years ago and now, while the material might change and playing has gotten better, it has matured, it’s still the same.”
The evolved newgrass sound can be found within their recorded albums as well. On their albums High Country and Aquatic Hitchhiker, listeners can find songs that change as they are performed live, whereas Garrison notes, “some will stretch out a little bit and we see where it takes us, and take a simple arrangement and continually use it as a vehicle live.”
Songwriting on recent studio albums has been fresh songs that had not been road-tested. Songs were written individually outside the studio and once in the studio, arranged as a band and lyrics edited to polish the final product. “Andy Thorn (banjo) was a live player since before he joined us. He used to see us when he was 15 years old. Now, he’ll come up with a tune that is a fully formed Leftover Salmon tune before we get a hold of it.”
25, a celebration of Leftover Salmon’s 25 years of music, was released over Thanksgiving weekend. Selecting the tracks was a feat, taking three years’ worth of shows and trimming the list down to 50-60 recordings to choose from. “It took a better part of a year to dig through it all and get what we wanted. Mario Casilio (sound engineer) spent time in the studio together mixing it and making sure it sounded good enough as a representation of the band. It’s the first album I’ve been able to produce for the band. I feel like we picked some interesting tunes that don’t get played very often, like an old version of “Blister in the Sun,” which we play once a year, so to capture a good one of those is great.
“Bill Payne (Little Feat) playing with us for the past couple years (all but one track features Bill) has helped us move in the direction of filling some spaces in a collective improvisation kind of way. We had a horn section with us at the Boulder Theater last year – it sounds like Leftover Salmon but the stuff is definitely unexpected and made it sound really good, and much better than just pulling something off of archive.org, but there’s nothing wrong with that, I do it too.”
Back in the Northwest for New Year Eve, Leftover Salmon will be joined by Skerik and Bill Payne in Portland, followed by shows in Alaska, Fort Collins, CO, a three week run in March and April, as well as the annual Ski Tour, which will include a mini-festival at The Stanley Park Hotel in Estes Park, CO. Unique to the Rocky Mountain-based band are events like Winter Wondergrass in Lake Tahoe, NV and Colorado, an outdoor bluegrass fest in the winter. “Everyone braves it and has a good time, plus we have a few shows in Chicago at The Vic Theater. We’ll be out and about doing our thing.”
Leftover Salmon continue their Northeast run with stops at Higher Ground in Burlington, VT on December 3, Brighton Music Hall in Boston, MA on December 4 and The Wolf Den in Uncasville, CT on December 5.
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