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

May 27, 2020
Tim Newby

This is part three (b) 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.  Make sure to check out part one, part two, and part three (a).

The band had a few days off and I headed home to Baltimore before rejoining them at the North Shore Performing Arts Center in Skokie, Illinois, just north of Chicago. The after-party found me on the bus at 1 am signing books for many of Vince’s friends who had come that night. 

The following day featured a short drive up I-94 to Milwaukee for a show at historic Turner Ballroom that was filmed and streamed by JamGrass TV.

A stop in Memphis a few days later saw a busy day for the band. They started with an early morning live TV performance, followed by a taping for the Ditty TV Concert Series, and then headed over to the evening’s venue, Minglewood Hall, for soundcheck. A big dinner before the show backstage from Gus’s legendary fried chicken threatened to send the band into a food coma, so everyone retreated to their own space for a nap or some quiet time. As show time neared so did the energy and the band delivered a midweek burner that included the debut of  “New Minglewood Blues” in honor of the evening’s venue. 

Memphis at Minglewood Hall / photo: Josh Mintz

After a long late-night drive, we arrived in Atlanta for a stop at the City Winery.  Following windy, frigid temperatures in Chicago, the Arctic conditions in Milwaukee, and the dreary February weather in Memphis, the sunny mid-70s temps there were a welcome.

Upon arriving in a new city each day, everyone often dispersed, some with band-related obligations and others to visit friends, pick up some needed supplies, or simply get some time away from the bus. Eventually they would reconvene back at the venue for soundcheck. 

Looking to take advantage of the weather, I hopped on a scooter and headed out on the Atlanta Beltline trail that circles the city and visited some local breweries. A few hours later as everyone discussed their afternoon, I mentioned I had been listening to Gram Parsons and the Byrds as I rode around the city.  This led to a lengthy discussion that ended with Drew suggesting to Erik that he sing, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a tune that appeared on the Byrds classic album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and that Salmon had messed around with in soundcheck a few times but had never performed before.

Later during the show, I was backstage grabbing a beer as they started playing it. I found a spot by myself a few feet from where Erik was singing where I could peer through the curtains and watch the band play. It was a powerful, moving version of the classic song, and by far my musical favorite highlight of the tour.

Atlanta at the City Winery / photo: Tim Newby

Being in Atlanta naturally led to thoughts of Col. Bruce Hampton, who was extremely close with Salmon. My reading focused on Bruce, and was followed by the band telling many Bruce-related stories, which had actually started the night before when his old bandmate, Mo Morales, stopped by the bus following the Memphis show. He hung out for a few hours reminiscing with the band about our departed Colonel.

The Atlanta after-party featured Vince on guitar and Erik on piano, leading everyone backstage through a sing-along of old TV theme songs before we were asked to leave the venue. The party then moved back to the bus.

This was pretty much a nightly routine – hang and party at the venue with the friends from the area. At some point everyone would head back to the bus, which would leave sometime in the wee hours, so that everyone could sleep through the drive and to wake up in the next city.

Peham at the Caverns / photo: Melissa Varanko

After Atlanta was a short drive to Pelham, Tennessee for a show at the Caverns, part of an underground cave system that hosts live music in a section of the cave known as The Big Mouth, 100 feet below the surface. It was a marvel to see the transformation of the cave from the dark, wet, hole in the ground to a majestic underground venue just a few hours later.

For Salmon’s crew to help make that transformation was truly an undertaking, as everything for the stage had to be taken into the cave by a Gator Utility Vehicle towing a small trailer. The band seemed to be inspired by their first visit to the venue, and the evening was a raging high-energy affair that found the setlist littered with tunes that had not been played all tour, including “Ask the Fish” and covers of the Grateful Dead’s “Mr. Charlie” and “New Speedway Boogie.”

Pelham at the Caverns / photo: Melissa Varanko

The night closed with a high-energy take on the John Hartford classic, “Up on the Hill Where We Do Boogie,” one of Salmon’s most played songs but one that had not yet made an appearance this tour.  It was the perfect way to cap off a perfect show. 

On a snowy night a few days later they wrapped up the tour with an appearance on NPR’s Mountain Stage radio show in Charleston, West Virginia. Following the taping the band headed across the street for the traditional post Mountain Stage Jam at the nearby Empty Glass. While Vince and Drew sat in with the house band, the Carpenter Ants, Greg and I discovered that the Empty Glass might be the last bar in the country to serve Icehouse beer.

Charleston at the Empty Glass / photo: Melissa Varnko

I was honored that the band asked me to be a part of these shows. Getting on stage each night and sharing the story of the book with so many was a truly amazing experience. It was great to get out on the road and talk to so many people about the book and the band. As a fan it was great to see the band night after night and to see them dip into rarely visited parts of their catalog.

One of my favorite things was hearing skeptics concerned about the energy Salmon would be able to bring at a seated show, then leave blown away after witnessing how high-energy the band still was. 

The shows each night were pretty amazing.  To see them in the intimate venues they played, and to have them tell stories in such a relaxed fashion, was something really unique.

The Stories tour reinforced Leftover Salmon’s willingness to put themselves out on the edge every night.

Thirty years later, it is the willingness to take chances that still makes Leftover Salmon so special.

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