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(Compendia Records 5704 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/12/2004)
The jam band phenomenon is leading to interesting variations. Rock bands that get into extended instrumental improvisations have become a big attraction on the concert scene and have attracted a new generation of fans looking to escape from the formulaic, completely predictable pop on the commercial music scene. Phish remains the most popular, but The String Cheese Incident is not far behind, and String Cheese have a tendency to go acoustic from time to time, with their multi-instrumentalist Michael Chang playing mandolin and other bluegrass implements. So that has led to more acoustically-instrumented jam groups, and some bluegrass bands finding audiences among jam band fans.
This week, we have the latest CD by a rather long-running group that has been bouncing along the boundary between bluegrass and jam band rock for the better part of a decade. The group is called Leftover Salmon, and it's also the name of their new CD.
Like The String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon are from Colorado, and was founded by Drew Emmitt, Vince Herman, and the late Mark Vann. Their debut national CD, The Nashville Sessions, released in 1999, featured the key members in Nashville with a number of guest artists. They also did a joint CD with the alternative band Cracker, as well as releasing a live recording.
The new CD is the first studio project since a significant personnel revision, with 21-year old banjo player Noam Pikelny, a protege of Béla Fleck, replacing Mark Vann. Expanding the group to a sextet are bassist Greg Garrison, drummer Jesse Martinez, and keyboard man Bill McKay. The presence of a keyboard man obviously sets Leftover Salmon apart from your typical bluegrass band, and McKay plays in the classic rock organ style.
The new CD was produced by Bill Payne, the veteran keyboard man from Little Feat, a group with a more than 30 year history as a jam band. The result is a recording that runs the full spectrum from bluegrass to rock, both instrumentally and in terms of the style of writing. The scope of the CD is further widened by the fact that all but drummer Martinez contribute songs, and they do one cover from an unlikely source, the 1970s duo Loggins & Messina.
Band founder Vince Herman describes this CD as a bit more focussed and musically serious than some of their previous recordings, pointing out that three of the members have formal degrees in music. He calls the CD their first for grown-ups, an apparent reference to the young jam-band crowd they have been attracting. But Herman also says that do intend to maintain their sense of fun and eclecticism. And after being known for their many guests on their previous CDs, Leftover Salmon made this project largely self-contained, with producer Bill Payne making an appearance on keyboards, and one backing vocalist, K.C. Groves joining on one track.
While Leftover Salmon has not been known for reaching the kind of stratospheric level of musicianship of some in the New Acoustic field, like Bela Fleck, this CD is a solid effort that makes up in versatility what it might lack in the "wow" factor in virtuosity.
The bluegrass influence of the band is reflected in a number of the original compositions, which though they may feature some electric instrumentation, have both music and lyrics that evoke old bluegrass songs. A good example is the lead-off track, Down in the Hollow, by Drew Emmitt, which sounds bluegrassy enough, with the addition of the drums and keyboards, while also reminding us of Leftover Salmon's reputation as a jam band. <<>>
On the other hand, the group gets electric on several tracks. Delta Queen sounds less like bluegrass, and more like some long-lost track by Robertson and The Band. <<>>
Leftover Salmon adds to the variety with a song called Woody Guthrie, by guitarist Herman, a tribute to the great folksinger and how things have both changed and stayed the same since Guthrie rambled around and wrote his now famous songs. <<>>
One of the more interesting tracks in terms of the musical mixture of styles is Fayetteville Line. The song has the atmosphere of an old Appalachian folk song, which contrasts with the rather rock-like drums. It's one of the CD's highlights. <<>>
For a group with a reputation as a jam band, it's surprising that Leftover Salmon included only one instrumental on their new CD. But Lincoln at Nevada, by their young banjo player Noam Pikelny, it turns out to be a gem. <<>>
The band includes two non-original pieces. Everything Is Round by one Jim Page, Everything Is Round is a pleasing, lyrically engaging song that blends the acoustic and electric elements of the group's sound. <<>>
The CD's big work and most extended jam is their Leftover Salmon's version of Whispering Waters, a 1970s era song by Jim Messina of Loggins and Messina. It's good to hear a revival of the song that in itself melds traditional influences with more contemporary elements. <<>> Bill Payne puts in a nice piano solo, which sets the track off another musical direction, toward jazz influence. <<>>
The CD ends with Weary Traveler another of their original songs, in this case by Drew Emmitt, that hints at more traditional influences, in this case through the lyrics. <<>>
Leftover Salmon the new CD by the Colorado bluegrass and jam band of the same name is probably the group's most musically solid release yet. The sextet's stylistic mixture is an appearing one, and they do both the rock and the bluegrass influences quite competently, with solid musicianship. The addition of keyboards to the bluegrass mix makes for a distinctive sound. Their original material is also worthwhile, though not quite stellar. Some of the lyrics do tend to sun toward the cliches.
Sonically, we'll give the CD close to an "A." The mix has everything in the right place, and there is good clarity. The combining of the acoustic and electric instruments is well-handled. The dynamic range, while not at audiophile level, does allow some of the ebb and flow of the music to take place without excessive volume compression.
There's always the danger in the jam band scene of groups using it as an excuse to take the maximum time to play a minimum amount of musical content. Goodness knows that was frequently the case back in the 1960s. And for some jam band fans, who are there more for the event than the music, it may not make much difference. But Leftover Salmon combines eclecticism with solid musicianship, and all the more so with their new personnel lineup on their new recording.
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