May 292023

Leftover Salmon have slowly become a bit of a staple across the US jam band circuit. That circuit punches way above the perceived weight, given the ticket sales such bands can attract. If the Grateful Dead were the template, a fusion of rock with any other genre you might snatch out the air, and a modus operandi for long and complicated instrumental freeform forays, Leftover Salmon have that to a T. Their shtick: a constant whiff of bluegrass seeping into the mix and instrumentation, further even than the Dead ever strayed. Heck, frontman and guitarist Vince Herman even has a vague look of latter-day Jerry Garcia, crossed with a current day Bob Weir, burly of frame and white of beard and locks. They may be under the radar to most, but with their new release Grass Roots, the band step out of the shadows of their scene, not so much into a different light as a light that will bring them more visibility.

Grass Roots (get it?) is their take on the sort of songs that both inspired them and taught them to play, a mix of trad and the expected culprits: the Dead, of course, and Dylan, with David Bromberg and the Seldom Scene also getting a nod. Their own description is their house style is polyethnic Cajun slamgrass, and who can argue with that? Instrumentation ranges from the expected of their rock progeny: guitars, bass, drums, with the bass as equally likely to be stand-up as plugged in and electric, to the the mandolins, banjos, fiddles and dobros of the mountain roots, with new added keyboards for added pizazz. All sing a bit.

Grass Roots kicks off with Dock Boggs’ venerable “Country Blues.” The sound: a complex mix of meshed acoustica, a’twangin’ and a’pickin’. The vocals: a moonshine moan from multi-instrumentalist and co-founder Drew Emmitt. There is guest fiddle, on this one, courtesy of Darol Anger, allowing Emmitt to parade his mastery on the mandolin. Go back to the flickering newsreel videos of the original, and you can see quite what a masterful polish they have given the raw template, auguring well for the rest of the record. Pick up too on the masterful bass of Greg Garrison, also the record’s producer.

Garrison then switches to electric, equally inventively, for “Blue Railroad Train” is then a leisurely guitar and banjo driven song. It’s less runaway train, more slow coach ambling through the boondocks. Andy Thorn plays the banjo, Herman sings lead, with no other than Bully Strings guesting on harmony vocals. Of course, Strings’ Doc Watson-infused guitar play is prominent too, the track a down-home delight. (First recorded by the Delmore Brothers in 1934, Watson was the first to cover this song, if three decades later.)

Time for a hoedown? You got it, with a mandolin-driven “Ridin’ on the L&N,” which runs away from the start, mandolin tinkling to the fore, Herman and Emmit trading vocals. “Simple Twist of Fate” is always a tough gig, mainly given the gamut of existing versions always asking whether another is strictly needed. At first listen that answer suggests not, but further listens show how much is going on under the surface of this slightly orthodox presentation. New man Jay Starling gets to show off his chops, and it is the first real note of drummer Alwyn Robinson, not that it taxes him much. Faint praise? Possibly, the ubiquity of the song perhaps the problem. Concentrate more on the playing, especially, once more, the mandolin, and it improves.

“California Cottonfields” also fails to set the fields completely ablaze, again despite the best efforts of the band. It is still good, but the the initial impetus has slipped a bit, the song itself a little uninspiring. One wonders whether the inclusion is more to commemorate that Starling’s dad, John Starling, a member of the Seldom Scene, played a version of it.

“Fire and Brimstone” restores the balance then. It’s a funky little number, a swampy country blues, awash with shimmery electric piano, Starling again. Garrison and Robinson lay down a tight groove and Oliver Wood, of the Wood Brothers, is on hand for some neat slide guitar. The Grateful Dead’s “Black Peter,” here sung by Andy Thorn, exemplifies the main strength of this band, transforming the languid sway of the original into a brisk canter, somehow managing to maintain the same mood and attitude of the original. I am guessing it is again Starling who is playing the lap steel, but it is a constant delight as it ducks and dives between the banjo and mandolin breakdowns. “The New Lee Highway Blues,” chosen as a deliberate tip of the hat to another prime influence, David Bromberg, and is a tad more uptempo than Bromberg’s own iteration, but the vocal occupies the same sort of good old boy drawl. The bluesy fiddle, Emmitt this time, is exemplary.

“Nashville Skyline Rag” was the prime instrumental evidence laid down by Bob Dylan to prove Nashville Skyline was a pureblooded country record and nothing else, with the cream of Nashville session men underwriting that intent large. Tough act to follow for these guys? What do you think? Unsurprisingly, they accelerate the pace and, oddly, the vibe is almost more western swing than ragtime, never a bad thing. Indeed, it smacks, as it kicks off, as the spit of Commander Cody’s “18 Wheels,” expecting the vocals to slot in accordingly. That notion doesn’t linger, as each band member then struts their stuff, convincingly and assuredly. Riding that wave, the final track to close the show is “Fireline,” not the recent Billy Strings’ song, but from the pen Appalachian flat-picker Larry Keel, which sticks fairly close to the original, the guitar work on this, Herman I suspect, appropriately impressive. Altogether it is classy ensemble play, and rounds up of most of what has been heard, an aide memoire for each the individual strengths.

Grass Rootsis a likeable record, but I can’t find it in me to love it. Maybe I expect too much, for what, after all, is deigned merely to reflect the material that prompted the band’s 30-year career. As such, it does fine. But, as a reflection of what Leftover Salmon can do now and today, somehow Grass Roots feels sold a tad short. Still, we are a covers site, so, looking at that aspect alone, maybe a little more variety in the speed and modelling, as, even when played this proficiently, it can get a bit samey.

Grass Roots track listing:

  1. Country Blues (Dock Boggs cover)
  2. Blue Railroad Train (Delmore Brothers cover)
  3. Riding On The L&N (Lionel Hampton & His Quartet cover)
  4. Simple Twist Of Fate (Bob Dylan cover)
  5. California Cottonfields (Merle Haggard cover)
  6. Fire And Brimstone (Link Wray cover)
  7. Black Peter (Grateful Dead cover)
  8. The New Lee Highway Blues (David Bromberg cover)
  9. Nashville Skyline Rag (Bob Dylan cover)
  10. Fireline (Larry Keel cover)
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