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Leftover Salmon reveals new taste

By Rick Bell, May 2004

These days, there is very little that's left over with Leftover Salmon.

Just check their fridge. It's now stocked with several new members who are making their debuts on the influential jam band's latest record. There's also a new vibe, a sort of sobering maturity that's occurred since co-founder and banjoist Mark Vann died of cancer in 2003.

There's even a new producer. And that's where Leftover Salmon emphatically declares that while there indeed is change in the cool mountain air of their home base on Colorado's Front Range, they aren't about to completely forego the freewheeling jams and improvisation that's been a hallmark of the band's lengthy career.

Leftover Salmon's new producer, Bill Payne, also plays keyboards for the seminal West Coast ensemble Little Feat, one of the truly great jam bands of any era. Much like Leftover Salmon lost Vann, Little Feat lost its heart and soul in June 1979 when Lowell George died suddenly of a stroke.

Yet, Little Feat carries on today, still putting on incredible live performances and doing the jam band genre proud. It's not the sole reason Payne was chosen for Leftover Salmon's first studio project after Vann's death.

Members of both bands had become acquaintances and occasionally jammed together when schedules would permit, says Leftover Salmon's mandolinist-singer-songwriter Drew Emmitt from his home in Colorado.

"We've hooked up with Little Feat a couple times," says Emmitt while taking a break from shoveling snow after an early spring storm dumped about four feet of snow on his deck. A bit winded, Emmitt seems more than happy to chat about the band's colorful past, but was especially excited about the future.

The new, self-titled album on the Compendia label was released March 23, but had already climbed the Americana charts to the number 6 position within a few weeks. where it stayed.

"We opened for them in Fort Collins and St. Louis," Emmitt says of Little Feat. "Mark and I sat in with them too. And when we were having shows for Mark when he was sick, with people like Béla Fleck, the String Cheese Incident and Peter Rowan, Bill Payne and (Little Feat guitarist) Paul Barrere came out to the shows."Further cementing the relationship, Payne and Barrere later took time out to tour with Leftover Salmon on a run of the Northwest. Emmitt and Leftover Salmon co-founder, guitarist and singer-songwriter Vince Herman soon received an invitation to perform during Little Feat's 25th anniversary concert of the historic live double album "Waiting for Columbus.""That was a real honor," Emmitt says of the November 2002 event that featured guests ranging from Fleck to Levon Helm to Billy Bob Thornton. "You come to realize (Payne) was a driving, organizational force in that band."While the Grateful Dead may be the granddaddy of all jam bands, Little Feat certainly was a close relative. The Southern California roots rockers have been an inspiration to countless jam bands playing today, from Phish to Widespread Panic to Leftover Salmon.

"Sure, we've emulated them," Emmitt says. "During that tribute, Bill was holding us all together. We weren't all just strumming chords. Everyone was play- ' ing a part. He put a lot of effort into it."Payne brought a similar discipline to the studio for Leftover Salmon's new album - the band's eighth. As a group whose albums normally include a large number of guests who drop by to pick, Payne focused the band on being, well, a band instead of a loose-knit bunch of musicians hanging out in the living room and playing until all hours of the night.

In fact, Payne's the only non-Salmon musician contributing any licks (on both piano and keyboard), while Colorado bluegrasser K.C. Groves pitches in on harmony vocals on just one song, "Woody Guthrie." Otherwise, it's Leftover Salmon, from start to finish.

"This is an interesting point in our career," Emmitt says. "We've been touring for 15 years. We felt it was a good time to make a record that reflects the richness of being a band.

"It's more settled-down, more mature, more focused. This record is more about the tunes. I think every record is a snapshot. This one captures who we were when we made it. But I think we're playing better now than when we made the record."That's not to say this a slick, sterile record that strips away Leftover Salmon's jam band roots. Hardly. Remember, Payne was jamming long before Leftover Salmon ever picked up a mandolin or guitar.

"Oh, there was a groove," Emmitt recalls of the studio sessions. "It's much easier to play when there's a groove. And that's where we are now. We're still working on tightening things up. We've already improved so much."Payne also was careful to let the band's newcomers shine - especially banjoist Noam Pikelny, now the youngest member of the band, who contributed 1 song to the 12-set album, the instrumental cut "Lincoln at Nevada." Pikelny gets his licks in on both guitar and banjo, while fellow newcomer Bill McKay, previously in the Derek Trucks Band, adds a tasty rolling piano solo as Payne manages to keep the entire ensemble woven tightly into a 3 1Ž2-minute tune.

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