The Best Leftovers You'll Have All Week.
By Scott Cooper
FEBRUARY 14, 2000: "WE LET PEOPLE tape our shows, so to go in the studio and make a record that sounds like our live show is redundant."
Instead, it's the attitude of banjo player Mark Vann of Leftover Salmon, the self-dubbed "poly-ethnic Cajun slam-grass" band. The Colorado-based group is currently touring in support of their latest release, The Nashville Sessions, though Vann says the band won't neccesarily even play the same material featured on the record. "We wanted to give to people something on the record that they wouldn't usually hear us play live."
Known for their unique synthesis of classic country, Delta blues, southern boogie, high lonesome bluegrass, tropical rhythms and Cajun spice, Leftover Salmon opted to veer from its standard -- albeit unconventional -- course on The Nashville Sessions. Instead of mixing their influences into their tried-and-true spicy concoction, the band intended to focus on their country side.
Oh the best-laid plans....
Try as they might, Leftover Salmon will never be mistaken for Garth Brooks or Alan Jackson, not even Willie Nelson. Even with cameos from country legends such as Waylon Jennings and bluegrass idols like Earl Scruggs, the band still comes out sounding like no one but Leftover Salmon. "We had a blast doing it," says drummer Jeff Sipe. "Everyday a new legend would walk through the door."
The record, like the band, is really a hodge-podge of sounds, textures and moods. With Waylon Jennings adding his robust voice, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" is the closest the band comes to straight-forward country music. "He was hysterical in the studio," says Vann. "He was great to work with."
Vann's intrumental "Five Alive" is banjo pyrotechnics at its best, with Vann and Earl Scruggs flinging off notes faster than feathers in a cock fight.
"I was pretty nervous," Vann says about the time in the studio with his lifelong idol. "I was too nervous to enjoy it almost. I wrote the instrumental banjo tune with him in mind."
The song "Dance on Your Head," is Leftover Salmon at its most festive and fancy-free, while "Lines Around Your Eyes" captures the band's Cajun alter-ego, thanks in part to authentic Cajun accordion from Jo-El Sonnier and twangy vocals from Lucinda Williams. The band gets bluesey on "Nobody's Fault But Mine," sung by John Bell of Widespread Panic, and twangs up the otherwise soulful "Lovin' in My Baby's Eyes," sung and written by Taj Mahal. "Talking to (Taj) was quite a lesson," says Sipe. "He's a real musicologist. He's like a Smithsonian, a library, a museum."
No museum or library, however, will explain Sipe's colorful nickname: Apt. Q-258. The drummer was jokingly once introduced that way by his former bandmate Col. Bruce Hampton, and the name stuck. The story goes that Hampton had heard a tape of a radio evangelist named Prophet Omega who broadcasts his weekly sermons out of apartment Q-258. "When I traveled overseas they thought it was a drum machine," Sipe recalls. "When I showed up they were pleased to find out it was actually a human."
Leftover Salmon generally keeps tunes under five minutes, with only the occasional one garnering its extended jam treatment. Yet, somewhere along the road, the quintet earned the reputation as a Grateful Dead-inspired jam band and soon found Deadheads crowding their audiences. Vann says he was particularly surprised at the connection because he sees Leftover Salmon basically as a bluegrass band. "We were surprised that Deadheads and hippies came out to see us," he says. "We never tried to go after that crowd. I think they're just open-minded really about music. It was totally by accident. We don't really gear anything toward them. We don't have any of those long jams. Most of our songs are pretty short. They're just the people that go out to see shows."
Like Leftover Salmon, the Dead started out as disciples of traditional American music. The Dead's first incarnation was a jug band called the Warlocks, whereas Leftover Salmon was born from the marriage of a jug band called the Salmon Heads and a bluegrass band called the Left-Hand String Band.
"That's one of the connections between us and the Dead," Vann says. "They started out as a jug band. We share similar roots, even though our music doesn't sound necessarily much like the Dead. Our roots are from the same place: old American music, bluegrass and blues. We adopted them to our own form. Maybe that's part of why we relate to us."
Ironically, Vann was barely familiar with the Grateful Dead let alone rock 'n' roll music in general until just a few years ago. "I grew up listening to bluegrass until I was 19," the Virginia native says. "I didn't listen to anything that did not have a banjo in it. Two years ago, I was just discovering Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. While we were setting up one night, after the fourth song (on the jukebox), I asked (mandolin player) Drew (Emmitt) who it was. He looked at me funny and said it was The White Album."
Now that their banjo player has been turned on to rock 'n' roll, can we expect Leftover Salmon to go electric? "We're gonna tour with this record in mind for a while," Vann says, "but we may do a harder-edge record, more rock oriented. That's one of our ideas anyway. We haven't decided just yet. We'll see."
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