Leftover Salmon The Birchmere Music Hall Alexandria, VA September 21, 2011
You can’t catch a Leftover Salmon show often these days. The band has basically been out of commission since George W. Bush was finishing up his first term in the White House, so when the Heading Out for the East Coast tour was announced, many were ecstatic to shake it to the sounds of the jamgrass pioneers. It would be easy to make some pun-filled plays on words to describe their undiminished abilities, like “there’s nothing â€˜Leftover’ about these guys” or “the Salmon is still fresh.” Simply put, they sounded like they were still in their prime, more than 20 years after they first took the stage together in Colorado.
The original lineup may be long gone, but the spirit of this band is alive and well, and it was this spirit that took the stage at the Birchmere on a recent rainy September night. Shortly thereafter, Salmon managed to knock the roof off of the place. After opening with a raging “Gold Hill Line”Â and then jumping into the jamgrass salsa classic “Carnival Time,” the Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass â€” Leftover’s self-coined genre â€” was relentless, and they didn’t let up for the better part of the two-hour set.
The band plowed forward with the 80s-inspired “Valley of the Full Moon,” replete with the first (but far from the last) massive organ solo of the night. Then the tempo slowed with a true tear-jerker of a folk song, “Hey Woody Guthrie,” Leftover’s anthem to both the man and the ideals he instilled in so many: freedom, goodness and the guarantee that they, and only they, are the antidote for life’s ills.
Following the ode to Woody, the floor was ceded to keyboard and organ player extraordinaire, Bill McKay, as he played us his angry blues number “Just Keep Walking.” It was the first number of the night that found Drew Emmitt on his electric guitar.
Drew is as strong today as he ever was. Throughout the night, he switched flawlessly between electric guitar, violin and both acoustic and electric mandolin. Whether he was solidly fiddling away on a standard bluegrass line or taking a raging slide solo on his electric mandolin, it was clear that he can still take any song to the next level. Whether through solo builds or through the peaks and valleys that always brought the songs home, Emmitt proved why so many look to him as they speak of players that they aspire to be like.
Next up, Vince Herman â€” the guitarist, voice and heart of this outfit â€” took the mic and introduced the crowd to the “youngest” member on stage. Herman credited banjoist Andy Thorn with being a “real lift for Leftover since this guy put his thumb to the old five string.” Shortly Thorn would show the crowd exactly what Vince meant, as he set fire to the intro of “Sleigh Ride,” the only instrumental number of the night. For a band that has had some legendary banjo players hold that seat,Â the young Thorn more than kept up his end, taking raging solos throughout the night that maintained a measure of funk for the drive.
The Birchmere is a legendary venue that has hosted some giants of folk, blues, and rock. It is easy to be moved while strolling through their picture gallery, which documents just a fraction of the giants that have graced one of the venue’s two stages with their presence. Not least amongst these giants is a man whom Vince spoke of as being the “greatest writer of the past millennium.”
He was referring to John Hartford, and Leftover launched into “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” the first of two covers during the evening off of Hartford’s mega-album Steam Powered Aeroplane.
After more beloved Vince color-commentary, about the fall and how it’s “getting to be a whole easier catching those squirrels coming down out of the trees,” the ripped into “Squirrel Heads and Gravy.”
Though the show was not at capacity, it seemed everyone in the room knew the words to the songs and had a love for the band deep in their heart. One amongst the crowd proved to be the loudest, yelling requests that the band simply acquiesced without objection and made their way through the demands with grace.
Throughout the evening the band was playing heavy with a full drum kit and a full auxiliary percussion kit. The two percussionists of the evening switched back and forth on several occasions, but Jose Martinez held down most of the evening on the kit with Wally Ingram (Sheryl Crow, Stockholm Syndrome) filling his role on congas, bongos, random toys and what appeared to be a hubcap or two. The two worked as a unit like they have been playing together for years, but it was on the reggae breakdowns of “Evening” that allowed Ingram to really show his full sensibilities. By knowing exactly when and where to add that dub beat, Ingram took the tune from authentic to superb.
Following a classic “Festival” that was complete with big electric guitar and organ solos, the band went dark and ethereal while Vince waxed poetic about water and its role in this county, in the future and in life in general. It was at this point that a normal enough looking Anglo male emerged, bowed to the band with hands together in the form of prayer, and then joined Vince center stage. His name was John Flowers and he started to sing/talk into the mic.
What first seemed to be nonsense or speaking in tongues soon became clear that he was singing in Chinese and he took us through several stanzas of melodic and tasteful poetry that bordered on something The Doors might have done during one of Jim Morrison’s darker and weirder moments. The band then kicked in with “Ask the Fish,” with Flowers remaining on stage to echo Herman’s lines in Chinese. Shortly thereafter, Flowers bowed once more and departed the stage. Vince then commented “what a joy it is to be in the world,” opened a bottle of beer with a Sharpie, and the band played “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” followed by “River’s Rising,” with a huge outro jam led by Emmitt on the electric guitar that meandered through several genres including bluegrass, Cajun, reggae and straight up Rock and Roll. At this point, Drew started playing “Sweet Home Alabama” before turning the standard intro lick into a diminished parody of itself and ventured into “Stairway to Heaven.” Vince did a little jesting over the top of it, a story about drugs that started in a Grateful Dead parking lot, worked its way onto Gilligan’s Island and ended somewhere. It was classic Leftover Salmon and a reminder of why so many fell for the band so many moons ago.
The stage was then graced by Bridget Law and Bonnie Paine of opening band Elephant Revival, both of whom would remain for the evening. Paine came out with her amplified washboard and special gloves that she uses to rip her instrument to pieces and Bridget Law brought out her fiddle. The nonet then tore through “Get Her Rolling,” which featured a killer three person drum breakdown between Martinez, Ingram and Paine, and then took on the second Hartford song of the evening, “Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie.”Â This time it was Law’s chance to shine as she tore through the changes and took a solo so strong that the band requested that she do it again. After nearly two hours, the band finally bowed and exited the stage. The nine soon returned to the stage and closed out the night with some bluegrass in “White Freightliner Blues” before saying goodnight to a happy and satiated crowd who certainly were hoping that it would not be too long before they met again.