Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Polyethnic Slamgrass, Part 3(a)

April 23, 2020
Tim Newby

This is part three of three of author Tim Newby’s inside look into the writing of his latest book, Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival and the time he spent with the band on tour.  Read part one and part two here.

In the fall of 2017, Leftover Salmon embarked on a brief acoustic tour at intimate venues on the East Coast, dubbed the Living Room Tour.  Each night the band dug deep into their catalog and rediscovered long-forgotten songs not played in years.

While working on my book, Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival, I joined the band for a couple of shows on that tour – Washington D.C. at Gypsy Sally’s and Annapolis, MD at the Rams Head.  The D.C. show would feature Bryan Bowers, Geoff Goodhue, and Danny Knicely performing “Woodland Dream” acapela to start the second set.  The trio was invited to the stage after singing the song backstage during set break and the band “hated the thought of hogging it all to themselves,” so they brought them out to sing it at the start of the set.  Later in the show Knicely would join Salmon for a scorching version of the Magraw Gap classic, “Fireline.”

The Annapolis show would give birth to the Stories From the Living Room Tour, built around the release of Thirty Years of Festival in 2019, and enlarging the acoustic tour format by adding a storyteller element from the band.

Drew Emmitt, Vince Herman, and Tim Newby / photo: Melissa Varanko

One of my favorite things about Salmon is how guitarist Vince Herman takes events from his day and incorporates them into the show.  An article he reads earlier becomes new lyrics, a casual conversation over a joint with a friend becomes a change to the setlist, a look at old pictures backstage may become the reason he tells the story of how he and mandolinist Drew Emmitt first met.

At the Annapolis show, I had met up with Vince and Drew earlier to go through some pictures to be used in the book. The pair spent the afternoon reminiscing about long-forgotten tales as they looked at pictures of much younger versions of themselves that awoke old memories.  Later during the show Vince began sharing some of the stories we had been talking about during the day and adjusting the setlist as he went, reflecting the stories he was telling.

I was sitting with John Joy, the band’s manager, and inspiration flashed across his face. He leaned over and said, “This is what we need to do for the release of your book: a seated acoustic tour with the band telling different stories from the book. We will have a retrospective movie using old pictures and videos, and you will give a talk and read from the book to start each show.”

In that instant, John devised the premise that would become the Stories from the Living Room tour.

Vince Herman / photo: Melissa Varanko

The Stories from the Living Room Tour launched January 31, 2019 in Eugene Oregon and featured 16 shows spread out through February and March. The stage decor looked like a living room, complete with old paintings, including one of Bill Monroe. Small tables were placed around the stage and decorated with, among other things, a ceramic bust of Elvis Presley, a Denver Broncos gnome, and a giant lava lamp. The setup was completed by a working electric-fireplace topped with a set of Thirty Years of Festival books that gave the stage a warm, homey feel. 

A working turntable on stage allowed the band to select their pre-show and setbreak music from a diverse stack of records including the Bluegrass Cardinals, Frank Zappa, and Dr. Demento. Many nights, the band had a grand piano in place for keyboardist Erik Deutsch which showcased his playing and brought a new element to their sound.  

Each night I helped set the mood for the evening with an introduction and reading from the book.  Each reading was different, often related to the city we were in and would influence some of the stories the band would later tell.  Following the reading was a retrospective video that included many never-before-seen pictures and videos that highlighted the band’s entire 30-year career. 

Andy Thorn and Erik Deutsch / photo: Josh Mintz

The band would then take the stage for a seated acoustic show. The seated format was timely as banjo-picker Andy Thorn had recently broken his leg in a skiing accident and was still on crutches and unable to stand and play.

Following a trio of shows on the West Coast, Salmon returned to their home state of Colorado and for three nights, starting at the historic Wheeler Opera House in Aspen on Valentine’s Day. During the show, a snowstorm started that led to a treacherous, white knuckle drive back to the hotel (at least in the estimation of this Baltimore resident.) The following night we moved to the gorgeous confines of the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek.

On stage in Aspen / photo: Melissa Varanko

Salmon’s approach to writing setlists is a very loose relaxed affair.  At some point a blank piece of paper and Sharpie appear on the table in the greenroom. Drew or Vince will then casually start working on a rough list of songs for the night. Sometimes they do it together, sometimes one takes charge, and sometimes it is more of a band effort. The whole band usually weighs in at some point, providing suggestions, okaying some songs while nixing others. Some nights it comes together rather quickly, while other nights a half-filled paper graces the table until just before showtime as everyone goes about their pre-show business. 

On those nights when the band is distracted, road manager Larry Rust will subtly prod and remind them to finish. Song selections for the setlist can come from anywhere. Sometimes someone feels like playing a particular tune, or the location of the show can dictate an idea, or events during the day can land on the setlist.  At the Vilar, a conversation on the van ride from hotel to the venue about skiing led to the inclusion of Andy’s rarely played “Powder Day.”  

Setlist creation at the Vilar / photo: Melissa Varanko

For the Stories tour, Vince would often ask what I was going to talk about or read and include appropriate songs to those stories.  As they were putting the setlist together for the Vilar, I suggested they break out a cover of the Specials “Message to you Rudy.” It was a tune that was regularly part of Vince’s band the Salmon Heads in the 80s and played occasionally by Salmon when they first started, but soon dropped from their repertoire.  Vince joked how long it had been since they had played it and said he probably did not remember the song, and left it off the setlist.

Salmon setlists, once written, are a suggestion at best as the band reacts to the crowd and what they are feeling on stage, and will discard songs and add others on the fly. The Vilar was no exception.

As the band roared through the familiar segue of  “Boo Boo” into “Gimme Da Ting,” I heard the jaunty, reggae-ish riff for “Message to you Rudy” begin to emerge as Vince started to sing the song’s opening line. The band fully embraced the song and a smile and glance from Vince assured me he remembered our earlier conversation.  Later some in the band admitted they were not familiar with the song, but when Vince started it, they just followed along.  

With Wally Ingram / photo: John-Ryan Lockman

The Vilar also saw a sit-in from legendary drummer Wally Ingram, followed up with a late-night Sockeye (side-project of bassist Greg Garrison, drummer Alwyn Robinson, and keyboardist Erik Deutsch) show at Agave in nearby Vail.  The rest of the band and crew headed over for their set and Drew sat-in on electric guitar for a couple of songs. 

We wrapped up the Colorado run at Washington’s in Fort Collins. This evening featured a reading and many stories about original banjo picker Mark Vann, capped off with Greg’s heartbreaking ode to Vann, the rarely-played “Fayetteville Line.” a wishful longing to hear his banjo again.

Stay tuned for part 3(b)!

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