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Leftover Salmon: Grass Roots
(Compass Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/17/2023)
Bluegrass seems to be having another of its periodic revivals, with performers who have been known for other styles getting into, or in some cases returning to playing bluegrass. Recently we featured the new album by singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks, called Bluegrass Vacation. Also last year, eclectic banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck returned to bluegrass on his album My Bluegrass Heart. This week, we have a new recording by a group who have been on the edge of bluegrass for 30 years, and gone more straight-out for the style on their new release. The band is Leftover Salmon, and their new album is called Grass Roots.
Leftover Salmon formed in Boulder, Colorado, in 1989 from members of the Left Hand String Band and the Salmon Heads. So they called the combined group Leftover Salmon. They began to pick up gigs, including the H.O.R.D.E. festival tour in 1995, and developed a following on the jam band circuit. Their personnel has varied quite a bit over the years. After their founding banjo player Mark Vann passed away of cancer in 2002, Noam Pikelny joined. He’s known for his work with the Punch Brothers. Also Bill Payne, the keyboard man with the venerable band Little Feat was a member for a while.
Leftover Salmon went on hiatus in 2004, but reunited in 2007, and have been performing on and off and recording since then, with some of the members busy as studio musicians. Their new album, as its title Grass Roots suggests, takes the band into a more straight-out bluegrass direction, with all the tracks on the album being covers, with material running from the old time tunes by the Delmore Brothers and Dock Boggs, to songs by Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and David Bromberg. While the sound is mainly bluegrass, Leftover Salmon can get somewhat electric on this album.
The current lineup includes founding members Drew Bennett on mandolin and guitarist Vince Herman. Another long-time member is Greg Garrison is on bass, and banjo player Andy Thorne, drummer Alwyn Robinson and keyboard player-and-Dobro man Jay Starling joined after the group re-formed in in 2007. Though some of the bluegrass songs are naturally short, Leftover Salmon maintains its reputation as a jam band on some of the others, especially the Grateful Dead cover.
But opening the album is an old-time tune by Dock Boggs called Country Blues. The group serves it up with their typical level of energy, with the drums driving the track, despite the mostly acoustic instrumentation. <<>>
It wouldn’t be a bluegrass album without a train song, and this album has two. The first is the Delmore Brothers bluegrass classic Blue Railroad Train. The group serves it up authentically. <<>>
The other train song appears consecutively. Ridin’ on the L&N is another classic on which Leftover Salmon do some hot bluegrass picking. <<>>
An interesting choice of songs for the album is Bob Dylan’s Simple Twist of Fate, from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album. It’s a song that as been covered but a lot of people in different styles over the years, though I have not previously heard it done bluegrass style. Leftover Salmon does a nice job with it. <<>>
On the other hand, perhaps the most electric tune on the album is Fire and Brimstone by rock songwriter Link Wray. The band gives it an almost funky beat, through there’s still a banjo there to remind us of the bluegrass nature of the album <<>>
Leftover Salmon gets a chance to jam out on their cover of the Grateful Dead’s Black Peter in a semi-electric arrangement. It’s one of the album’s highlights. <<>>
The one instrumental on the album is, interestingly, a Bob Dylan song. Nashville Skyline Rag was an obscure track on Dylan’s 1969 Nashville Skyline album. Leftover Salmon gives it an energetic bluegrass treatment. <<>>
The album ends with Fireline a song written by John H. Doan, a veteran of our Homegrown Music here at WVIA in the 1990s. With the proliferation of climate-change-induced forest fires in recent years, the song has a good deal of relevance. <<>>
Grass Roots the new 11th album by the long-running bluegrass-influenced Colorado jam band Leftover Salmon, is well named, with bluegrass being the principal stylistic theme. Still, it gets electric at times, and the range of material they cover keeps things interesting. The added guests, including guitar sensation Billy Strings, and New Acoustic Music pioneer Darol Anger is a further plus. The album also holds to the bluegrass principle of keeping the songs fairly short. The longest jam on the album is five-and-a-half minutes. As usual, the playing is first-rate, and the band keeps things in good spirits.
Our grade for audio quality is about an A-minus. Most of the time the acoustic instruments are well-treated, but there are a couple of instances with unnecessary effects on acoustic guitar.
This is turning out to be a rather good time for new bluegrass releases. Leftover Salmon’s Grass Roots is a worthy addition to the repertoire.
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