Return of the Upstream Swimmers

They say salmon return to their birthplace to spawn, implying a certain cycle-of-life continuity vibe among the Coho, Sockeye and Chinook sets. And having just listened to and enjoyed very much the first new Leftover Salmon album in eight years, it seems that the legendary inventors of Polyethnic Cajun Samgrass have internalized the ethos of their namesake fish. Put more simply, a genre-bending, blazingly fun band has reunited and picked up where it began in 1989 and where it left off back in 2005.

I became a fan of Leftover Salmon at the Hillside Stage at Merlefest in 1995. I was still pretty new to bluegrass and roots music. I was trying to figure it all out and learnin’ my Doyle Lawsons from my Del McCourys. I was aware of, and fond of, Grateful Dead-grass and New Grass Revival. But when Leftover made its Merlefest debut at what was still then a fairly traditional festival, it was a mind-blowing revelation. Fast, loud and danceable, it sent electric ripples through the air. They became truly the template and brush-clearing pioneers for jam grass music. For some in bluegrass, that ain’t no part of nothing. For me, it’s all part of the diverse joy of a super-creative scene.

Leftover suffered a huge loss when founding banjo player and vital vocalist Mark Vann died of cancer in 2002. His successor was Noam Pikelny, now the most admired young progressive banjo player in the world and a member of the outstanding Punch Brothers. But a hiatus seemed inevitable and that came in 2005. Now, original members Vince Herman (guitar) and Drew Emmitt (mandolin) are joined by drummer Jose Martinez, bassist Greg Garrison (a former Punch Brother by the way) and banjo wizard Andy Thorn, who’s been making music for years with Drew in the Emmitt-Nershi Band, alums of Music City Roots. The new album Aquatic Hitchhiker, produced by Los Lobos legend Steve Berlin, was recorded this winter in Portland, OR (a story available in an on-line documentary) and will be released May 7. Their tour schedule for this summer is jammed and I’m sure when they play at Roots this Wednesday, I’ll get that 1995 feeling back and be ready to jump in a hippie van and follow them around.

It’s gonna be a high-energy night generally. Those who favor moody acoustic sounds and ancient tones might want to pick another week to come. Bloodkin is a veteran Southern rock band out of Athens, GA that sealed its reputation as a source of crowd-pleasing songs for Widespread Panic. Our sponsor relations guy Justin is beside himself with excitement about this booking, guaranteeing a good time. We’ve been visited before by Big Daddy Love, that band you want to bear hug. Call it Appalachian Rock or Carolina Soul, you know that they’ll bring passion and great songs and that Daniel Justin Smith will be singing them with a toothpick clenched in his teeth. Also on the bill will be our pals the Volunteer String Band, fronted by the under-appreciated voice of Travis Stinson. You can see these guys after every Roots anchoring the after-party at Brewhouse 100, but I’m thinking they’ll be even tighter and pulling out their best material for this Roots appearance.

So come on out and plan on shaking your tail. Don’t be a cold fish.

Craig H.

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