Old Town School - Chicago
April 1, 2000 (early)
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2000, Volume 7, #5
Written by John Metzger
Talk about opposites attracting. On one side stood Chicago's prestigious, if sometimes stodgy, Old Town School of Folk Music. On the other side stood Leftover Salmon, the loose playing, high-flying jam band with heavy bluegrass undertones. Adding fuel to the fire was the pseudo-holiday April Fool's Day, perhaps the most appropriate day of the year on which this union could take place. Yet, the two sides had enough in common for this alliance to also make perfect sense.
Certainly, it helps that the members of Leftover Salmon have grown more serious about their music. They've always had the chops, but more often than not, they've hid their talent behind crazy, ganja-stoked stage antics, which often resulted in an incessant need to simply act silly. Nevertheless the band's latest album The Nashville Sessions is a giant leap towards maturity that no doubt helped to cement the band's relationship with the Old Town School, which resulted in a trio of acoustic concerts at the institution's Chicago Folk Center.
Surprisingly, Leftover Salmon was extraordinarily earnest and sincere in the first of their three sold-out shows at the venue — much more so than one might have expected. Despite the audience's raucous prodding, the group was nearly three quarters of the way through the opening set when it began to loosen up and joke with its usual frivolous impudence. Just as quickly as it appeared, however, the saucy zaniness sank back into the recesses of concerts past, surviving only for the brief drug-induced flicker of Blue Green Slime and 4:20 Polka. Instead, Leftover Salmon was unwavering in its determination to showcase its newfound maturity — a feat that not only served to highlight the band members' incredible skill and musicianship but also clearly demonstrated their deficiencies.
Most notable of these were Leftover Salmon's vocals. Without the layers of electric instruments and the large halls filled with chattering fans, there was no place to hide when harmonies collided with one another. The Del McCoury Band it is not. On the other hand, the lack of a spit and polish gloss meant that the group's vocals did pack a raw edginess that served to uphold the energizing nature of its self-described slamgrass style, and this looseness is inherent in the improvisational nature of the jam band scene.
Musically speaking, Leftover Salmon smoked. Over the course of the evening, Vince Herman alternated between solid rhythm guitar and sparkling spitfire leads, and Mark Vann picked wickedly textured banjo solos. Drew Emmitt offered only one fiddle tune (Georgia Lou), and instead clung tightly to his mandolin, mutating the melody of each song with devilishly delicious elliptical refrains. Bassist Tye North rounded out the group, adding the only electric instrument to the mix. He brought a solid underbelly to the material, while also pumping pure power into his liberated modal motifs. Consequently, Up on the Hill Where We Do the Boogie crackled with energy, Euphoria recaptured the essence of jug band music, and Breakin' Thru soared with mighty aspirations.
However, the highlight of the show came with the guest appearance of noted Chicago harpist Sugar Blue. His presence during Leftover Salmon's second set seemed to stimulate the group, allowing it to take its music to new heights. Songs began to open up to greater improvisation, and the band left gaping holes for Sugar Blue to fill with his dexterous talent. In fact, none of the tunes performed this evening quite reached the pinnacle that was hit on Sittin' on Top of the World. The band members worked the song from a relaxed groove into a feverish pitch, surrendering to the melody and graciously sharing the spotlight with each other.
Indeed, Leftover Salmon has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Its current acoustic tour appears to be a soul-searching excursion designed to help it to find direction during this period of transition. It also seems designed to help expose the band to a wider audience without alienating those already entrenched in its camp.
One thing's for certain — it was a wise move. Leftover Salmon clearly is having fun, and it will no doubt see a different side to writing and performing than that to which it has grown accustomed. Its audience, too, will grow and learn as it begins to bond more closely with the true roots of Leftover Salmon's sound. It's good for the band, it's good for bluegrass, and it's good for the fans. That, my friends, is no joke.
The Nashville Sessions is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright © 2000 The Music Box