CRYSTAL BAY, Nev. and#8212; Leftover Salmon fans were undoubtedly thrilled when the trailblazing jam band regrouped three years ago to play the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado.
Things have only gotten better since then, as the group spent the next two years continuing to play select shows, and then early this year announced it would release a new studio CD, and#8220;Aquatic Hitchhiker,and#8221; and go on a full-fledged tour.
In a way, it seemed like the logical course for a Leftover Salmon comeback to take. But mandolin/fiddle player/singer Drew Emmitt says the band members weren't aware of what the future would hold upon returning 2008 and#8212; much less when the group went on indefinite hiatus in 2005.
That break came three years after banjo player Mark Vann, who, along with Emmitt and guitarist/singer Vince Herman, formed the core of Leftover Salmon, lost his battle with cancer in March 2002.
The group continued on and#8212; making good on Vann's wish that Salmon would not end with his death and#8212; but the band clearly felt the effects of losing an integral member of the group as well as the strain of a dozen years of near-non-stop touring.
As Emmitt made clear in a mid-June phone interview, it was anything but a sure thing that Leftover Salmon would return from the hiatus.
and#8220;I don't think anybody knew at that point,and#8221; he said. and#8220;I think the only thing we knew after Mark passed and we kind of kept things going for a little while, was that we really needed to take a break. You know, I think in some ways we didn't even think we were going to do it again. We felt like well, we've done it and it's time to do our own projects. So it was very, very uncertain.and#8221;
But the idea of performing together again eventually began to tug at Emmitt and Herman (as well as the other members, bassist Greg Garrison, drummer Jose Martinez and banjo player Matt Flinner), and they settled on doing a few shows to test the waters, beginning with an appearance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival 27 months after the start of the hiatus.
and#8220;I think the longer we were away from it, the more we felt like, you know, maybe we should do this again,and#8221; Emmitt said. and#8220;Maybe we've had enough time away, and maybe we can do it differently instead of being on the road the entire year. Maybe we can pick and choose (shows) a little more and not beat ourselves into the ground like we did before.and#8221;
Still, even after a successful return to touring, it was anything but a slam dunk that playing shows would lead to a new CD.
and#8220;Our manager, John Joy, really pushed us to make a new record,and#8221; Emmitt said. and#8220;He said, and#8216;If you guys don't do something new, this is just going to die. You're doing these shows, but you've got to do something to keep people interested.'and#8221;
That didn't seal the deal, though.
and#8220;It (making a record) was a kind of a touch-and-go thing, because I think there was a feeling that we didn't really want to go back into the studio as a band,and#8221; Emmitt said. and#8220;We didn't want to go through that. We had had experiences where it wasn't the most positive thing being in the studio.and#8221;
Eventually, though, the group's own creativity got the best of it, and plans to make and#8220;Aquatic Hitchhikerand#8221; took shape last spring and summer. And the band members and#8212; including new banjo player Andy Thorn, who took over for Flinner in 2010 and#8212; took steps to improve the chances that the project wouldn't tarnish the spirit of rebirth that was existing in the band.
and#8220;I think a lot of it was we were going to let each other do what we do and not be critical of each other like we've been in the past and just let it unfold,and#8221; Emmitt said. and#8220;A lot of times, when you've been a band for a long time, it's easy to get on each other about things. And this time we just really let it unfold and let each other do their thing, and it just worked out beautifully that way.
and#8220;We sat down and wrote songs together, really collaborated and it was really a great coming together of the band and a great group effort,and#8221; he said. and#8220;Once we were in there, it was a blast.and#8221;
The good vibes Leftover Salmon felt in making and#8220;Aquatic Hitchhikerand#8221; are very apparent on the CD. The group's amalgam of bluegrass and rock that it calls and#8220;slamgrassand#8221; is very much intact, as songs like and#8220;Keep Drivingand#8221; and the title track feature plenty of fast picking banjo and mandolin to go with their rootsy melodies. The band also throws a few curveballs into the mix, getting a bit swampy on and#8220;Gulf Of Mexicoand#8221; (which comments on the Gulf Coast's recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill), touching on Cajun music and#8212; another long-running influence on the group and#8212; on the loping song and#8220;Bayou Town,and#8221; and dipping into a bit of a Grateful Dead-ish folky-rock on and#8220;Sing Up To The Moon.and#8221;
It's a sweet return for a band that helped build the jam band scene after forming in Boulder, Colo., in 1989. The band released four studio albums during its pre-hiatus run, but spent the bulk of its time touring, routinely racking up 200 shows a year.
Although Leftover Salmon built a considerable following leading up to its hiatus in 2005, Emmitt said the group clearly grew more popular in its two years off, and its audience has continued to expand since.
and#8220;It definitely feels like it's grown since we took the break, and I think that really kind of instilled a whole new energy into our crowd that we left for awhile,and#8221; Emmitt said. and#8220;I think a lot of people missed us and I think that a lot of people found out about us for the first time. It's definitely hopping, that's for sure.and#8221;
What's also hopping is the energy within Leftover Salmon.
In particular, the arrival of Thorn has given the band a feeling it hadn't really had since Vann's passing.
Thorn came into Emmitt's orbit when banjo player Chris Pandolfi, who had played in both the Emmitt-Nershi Band and Emmitt's own group, left to join the Infamous Stringdusters. Panolfi recommended Thorn and Emmitt, after talking to Thorn on the phone, hired him.
He soon concluded that Thorn should also be in Leftover Salmon, which had returned to playing live shows with Flinner on banjo.
and#8220;It just wasn't the right fit (with Flinner),and#8221; Emmitt said, noting that dismissing Flinner was one of the hardest things he's ever had to do. and#8220;It always felt like Matt was sort of on the peripheral and wasn't in the core of the band. And when Andy joined, it was like and#8216;Wow, we've got the band back.' And it really was the missing piece of the puzzle that made it all come back together again.and#8221;
Now the re-energized Leftover Salmon is back on tour, and planning at least two more U.S. tours during the first half of 2013 in support of and#8220;Aquatic Hitchhiker.and#8221;
and#8220;There's definitely a lot of energy and a lot of cohesion going on right now,and#8221; Emmitt said. and#8220;And it's kind of vintage Salmon, but at the same time it's also brand new Salmon, and it's really exciting. There's just really great energy on stage.and#8221;