For Leftover Salmon, a band that has toured in various forms for nearly three decades, it seems that the only constant is consistent evolution. While never fully accepting a definitive classification - comfortably falling somewhere between rock, folk, bluegrass, Cajun, soul, jazz, and blues - the band has managed to take what founding members Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, and the late Mark Vann created and continuously reinvent itself across nine albums, twenty-five plus years of headlining shows and festivals, and a rotating lineup of players.
But even if familiar, change isn’t always easy.
“It’s a wild time to be out there providing entertainment to folks,” said Herman (guitar/vocals.) “I’ve been asking myself: What is the role of a musician in these times? And it’s a challenging question. Especially for a band like ours - a party band - that is used to focusing more on the good times than on the struggles.”
The latest iteration of the band will address its changing role through its recently announced Winter 2017 North American Tour and a new album, due out this spring. Joining Herman and Emmitt on both is long-time bassist Greg Garrison, drummer Alwyn Robinson, banjo player Andy Thorn, and the band’s newest member, Erik Deutsch, on the keyboard. While Herman admits to feeling uneasy about the recent state of the country, he’s confident about the current makeup of the group.
“After 27 years of doing Salmon, it’s feeling better than ever,” said Herman. “We’ve got new blood in the band - some youngsters coming in and bringing a whole new musical perspective and drive to our sound that’s really coming together nicely.”
Unlike Herman, whose musical roots sprouted in the West Virginia bluegrass and folk scene, the band’s newest members hail from music school, widening the band’s collective palate with everything from jazz to synthesizers. While Salmon has been traditionally known for its classic folk rock sound, the group’s openness to new direction has allowed it to evolve alongside both more modern music and the up-and-coming voices in the bluegrass scene.
“[The bluegrass world] has been producing this pile of kids that are just amazing players. They go to Berklee and do the conservatory stuff and then end up focusing on traditional bluegrass music. The future of acoustic music is in good hands,” Herman said, noting names like Sarah Jarosz and Dominick Leslie. “Anymore, the music business is really about finding your niche and finding a way to make a living within that niche. Especially for touring bands that have been doing it for as long as we have.”
If finding and succeeding within your niche is the key to musical success, then Leftover Salmon is the poster child, as demonstrated by the droves of fans that loyally flock to their shows and the high-profile industry friends they’ve made along the way. The band’s recent show at the Fillmore in San Francisco saw a special appearance from Bill Kreutzmann to perform “Playing in the Band” and “New Speedway Boogie.” While Kreutzmann has previously dropped in on Leftover Salmon, as well as other Herman bands like Great American Taxi, this sit-in was particularly meaningful as it marked the 50th anniversary of the first Human Be-In held at Golden Gate Park. The Be-In opened the Summer of Love, which put Haight-Ashbury on the map and subsequently led to the rise of the Grateful Dead and similar bands in the Bay Area. For Herman, the show felt extremely relevant given the current political climate, as he stated,
Herman, who participated in the Women’s March in both Seattle and Portland while out playing with his son’s band, Gipsy Moon, says his current goal is to continue to “come up with new ways to say [Donald Trump] is crazy and dangerous and has to go” while simultaneously working to maintain some inner peace. The protests, in particular, are giving him hope.
“While [the marches] were angry and confrontational, there was also - especially in Portland - a great joy. It was an opening of people really stepping into who we are as individuals and collectively as a country, and it was really encouraging to see. It was deeply encouraging to see that while people are serious, there’s this frivolity and joy that is going to be so important for keeping our sanity moving ahead here.”
Through the current tour and upcoming album, Herman hopes to help fans find similar hope and balance. For Chicago fans, there are two upcoming opportunities to catch up with the band. Well, now one: