Of the People, For the People

The remnants of Leftover Salmon play anticipated local show

Vince Herman, left, and Drew Emmitt still have lots to strum about.

Since forming in the late 1980s, Leftover Salmon had earned a place as a darling of the jam-band and music-festival scenes. Though nominally a bluegrass band, the Boulder, Colorado-based sextet makes music that draws from a wide variety of American musical genres. Two of its founding members — Drew Emmitt (guitar, mandolin, fiddle) and Vince Herman (guitar) — maintain a creatively fulfilling side project, performing as a duo. Ahead of their latest tour, Herman took the opportunity to reflect on their approach.

Whenever the two of you are mentioned — within the context of Leftover Salmon or beyond it — the point is made that your music doesn’t fit neatly into a genre. Is that intentional? 

We never had a plan on what Leftover Salmon would be stylewise; at the first gig, we just played what we knew without rehearsing, and that became what we played. There was no predetermined intention about what kind of band to be; we were just being who we are.

When you combine different styles, you highlight the commonality between those styles, sometimes showing a connection that might not have been readily apparent. How would you put that connection into words?

Rock, punk, Americana, blues, jazz … all those things are our folk music. Folk is just the music of the people, and we love it. That’s what we play, and we find that common thread through playing it on bluegrass instruments.

This tour looks to be an opportunity for each of you to dig deep into your catalogues, to play songs that audiences might not have heard live — or at least not in a long time. What are some of your own favorite songs from the earliest days of your repertoire?

Some Calypso songs, traditional bluegrass songs songs that we wrote back in the day, still work.

This tour will be an acoustic, pared-down answer to Leftover Salmon. What else is different?

The duo tour is going to allow us to just wing it without a set list. Drew and I have been together all these 30 years — we can do [tunes together that] the rest of the band has not done. [I] might play songs that Drew doesn’t know, or [vice versa]. It’s incredibly flexible. The duo thing is ultimate freedom.

Detractors of the jam-band scene sometimes characterize the style as indulgent self-gratification. What’s your response?

It’s definitely not about re-creating the radio mix. It’s about using the song as a vehicle for expression. Hopefully it doesn’t get too noodly; I think the nature of bluegrass music is that the songs don’t really veer from the form. Generally, there’s a melodic thread running through, so you can remember what song you’re playing, Jam bands aren’t for everyone, though. We are definitely a subculture. 

Improvisation allows a new idea to present itself in real time. How often does that happen to you, and are you able to “capture it,” so to speak, to use later in a songwriting or arranging context?

I’m always looking to relate songs to what’s happening in real time at the gig. And I’m more than happy to change the words to the song if if I can make people feel more present by talking about what we’re all doing right now. It’s the ultimate way to make people be present. The duo [format] gives us even more freedom to pursue ideas on the spot.

Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman play 185 King St. (185 King St., Brevard) on Saturday, Feb. 8, 9pm. $35 general admission. Standing room only. For more information, call 828-877-1850 or see 185kingst.com

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