Bridges to Bert and Babylon (Part 1)

Leftover Salmon - The Drovers

Vic Theatre - Chicago

September 21, 1997

First Appeared in The Music Box, November 1997, Volume 4, #12

Written by John Metzger

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Leftover Salmon hit Chicago's Vic Theater for a two-date performance in mid-September, and after the group's amazing, but brief appearance on the H.O.R.D.E. tour this past summer, these shows were irresistible to jam band fans. For those unfamiliar with Leftover Salmon, it has dubbed its style as "slamgrass," which actually does a nice job of summing up the various musical styles it incorporates into its music. Its improvisational sojourns cover bluegrass, cajun, zydeco, calypso, country, ska, reggae, rock, blues, jazz, and just about everything else one might want to hear.

On September 21, the second of its two shows, Leftover Salmon opened with a 50-minute set that was outstanding, and it easily hit the highs that most fans expected. Augmented by Hot Tuna keyboardist Pete Sears, Leftover Salmon began with a bluegrass rendition of The Band's The Shape I'm In, which quickly captured the audience's attention. By the time the group launched into Carnival Time, its third song of the night, just about everyone in the enthusiastic crowd was involved in some sort of frenzied dancing. The collective seemed to feed off this energy, and it picked up the intensity with each song that it delivered. Mama Boulet drifted off into a driving duet between drummer Michael Wooten and bassist Tye North before returning to the tune's conclusion.

Leftover Salmon also bounded through Highway Song, while floating on the vocals of Drew Emmitt. Upon concluding, an audience member yelled, "What time is it?" to which Vince Herman responded, "Is it time?" The band immediately launched into a blistering 4:20 Polka. The set concluded with a feverish Better that threatened to speed out of control. The group hung on, driving the song at a rapid pace as Emmitt tore through a series of red-hot electric guitar solos. It was a fitting ending to the set, but amazingly it was only a shadow of what was to come during the second act.

River's Rising picked up where the first set ended as Mark Vann carried the song with some excellent banjo playing reminiscent of Béla Fleck. Pete Sears added some tasty keyboard licks before Leftover Salmon embarked on a Smokestack Lightning jam. Before it could delve into the lyrics, the group took a left turn and tore through a rapid-fire ending to River's Rising.

The energy level was certainly high and seemed to be increasing with each note played. Then Herman pulled out the surprise for the evening as bluesman Sugar Blue was invited to the stage. Sugar Blue's guest appearance at the Phish show on August 8 at the World Music Theatre was rather disappointing, but apparently, that dismal turn of events had more to do with Phish than with Sugar Blue. Indeed, this time out he was nothing short of spectacular. Leftover Salmon launched into Little Red Rooster as Sugar Blue belted out the vocals in his classic blues style. Even better was his harmonica playing, which at times sounded very similar to John Popper. The band left plenty of room for him to jam, as each person on the stage clearly listened to what every other person was playing. It was a group with one mind and one focus, and it carried the song from a slow blues groove to a faster, swinging blues theme and back again. Throughout this, North's bass shook the place with a thunderous rain of notes.

Leftover Salmon changed gears with the next song — a bluegrass number titled Doin' My Time. Herman took the first solo with an acoustic guitar outburst and then set up a duel between Sugar Blue and Pete Sears. This didn't get very far so Sears abandoned the duel and allowed Sugar Blue to take over completely. He responded with a fiery exclamation of spiraling intensity. North blasted off a few more bass runs before the band embarked upon another group jam, which led to another verse. As Emmitt took his turn with a mandolin solo, the groove mutated into a reggae beat that could only mean the start of When the Levee Breaks. The song appears on the Leftover Salmon's Ask the Fish, but as good as that version is, it hardly compares to the epic rendition performed on this magical night. Everyone had a chance to explore some musical terrain. Vann took the first excursion, allowing his electric banjo to play him and carry the audience into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. His solo gave way to a group jam before the band returned to the reggae beat that opened the song. Sugar Blue picked up the next opportunity, taking the crowd from the upper reaches of the atmosphere to the heavy gravity of Jupiter. Another group jam ensued, and the next verse was sung. Sears pounded a forceful solo that pushed the audience out to Pluto, and every time that it seemed as if the song would end, the band launched into another improvisational sojourn. It was an awesome display of pure jamming that resulted yet again in the reggae beat that allowed the fans a chance to catch their collective breath and find its place in time. Sears led the group through a space-filled keyboard jam before Emmitt took his turn with a blistering guitar solo that pushed beyond the solar system. The group jam returned for a final blowout before the concluding verse and end to the song. This pair of songs certainly ranked with the best concert highlights of Leftover Salmon's career.

After a reprise of Carnival Time, which was even more amazing than the first set version, and a new song titled Breakin' Through, Leftover Salmon brought Sugar Blue back to the stage for the show ending medley of Joe Walsh's Rocky Mountain Way and the blues-y Jugband Song. Again Sears and Sugar Blue provided some intense solo excursions before the show ended without an encore due to the venue's curfew.

Chicago's own The Drovers opened the concert with an outstanding mix of Irish folk and rock. The group improved with each song that it played, and it concluded with All Good Times are Passing By, which featured a Moody Blues-style flute solo and carried a feeling reminiscent of Rusted Root's Cruel Sun.

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Part 2 is a review of
the Rolling Stones September 25, 1997 performance at Soldier Field in Chicago.

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Copyright © 1997 The Music Box