Hear This: A Spring For Strings

Leftover Salmon and Trampled By Turtles hit the road with new albums.

Fishiness is back in style. In the mid-to-late 1990s, Leftover Salmon bridged the progressive groove and free-spirited edge of Colorado string-band music with an open-ended exploration that came to characterize the thriving jam-band scene of the time. While influenced by nimble-picking predecessors from their home state, particularly Hot Rize, the group also indulged in a broader range of sonic tangents—from head-banging rock assaults to laid-back zydeco grooves. Salmon’s gonzo live shows came courtesy of quick-tongued, hearty-voiced singer/guitarist Vince Herman, a pied piper of ganja-fueled party time, who lit up the front line alongside string shredders Drew Emmitt on mandolin and Mark Vann on banjo.

The band built a loyal following across the country, filling theaters and conquering festivals. Sadly, Vann succumbed to cancer in 2002. His loss resulted in uncertainty over the future of the band, but, despite line-up shuffles and a brief hiatus, Salmon has endured. Now approaching three decades together, the six-piece group will release its first album of new material in four years on May 4.

While at times casting a mellow shadow, “Something Higher” is in ways even broader than the amalgam sound the band purveyed in its early days. Salmon brands the sound “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass.” Credit goes to newer members, whose contributions provide some of the album’s most interesting moments. Banjo player Andy Thorn, with the band since 2010, drives his namesake instrumental “Game of Thorns,” a fleet-fingered jazz odyssey that pays homage to the cosmic-grass of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. One track prior, drummer Alwyn Robinson, who joined in 2013, delivers smooth, soulful lead vocals on the introspective psychedelic folk song “Foreign Fields.”

To make the album, the Salmon members enlisted producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos and traveled to Tucson, Arizona, to record using the analog equipment at Wavelab Studios. As a result, songs like “Analog” and “Let in a Little Light” thrive with lo-fi, front-porch rawness, and the title track, a funky, horn-fueled R&B jam about embracing optimism, hits an organic sweet spot between Muscle Shoals and the Rockies.

Even as Leftover Salmon spreads its musical reach, the founders still lay down familiar Americana comforts. Herman, although known for his wild stage presence, also has a thoughtful side to his songwriting. He reaches back to his pre-Colorado days in Appalachia on the dusty ballad “Southern Belle.” Emmitt, too, has a pensive country mind, and through the years he has exhibited the ability to write a highway song with the best in bluegrass. In “Places,” a gently rolling tour of road memories, he sings, “Been so many places, still don’t know where I am bound.”

After all this time, it’s good to see Leftover Salmon still seeking out new frontiers.

Another popular unorthodox acoustic outfit, Trampled by Turtles, will also release a new album next month (coincidently on the same day as Leftover Salmon). Back in the fall of 2016, the Minnesota sextet announced an indefinite hiatus, which gave front man Dave Simonett time to exorcise the emotional demons of a recent divorce through the solo project Dead Man Winter. But on the title track of the new record, “Life is Good on the Open Road,” Simonett sings, “The light inside you comes and goes, but it never really goes out,” so it’s no wonder it took less than two years for a band that excels at hosting rowdy hoedowns to reunite.

Armed with traditional strings, Trampled rarely indulges in flashy solos, instead focusing on an old-time collectiveness that’s updated with the rumbles and swells of anthemic punk fury. That bravado is alive and well at certain points on the group’s latest effort, particularly the backwoods speed-metal scorcher “Blood in the Water.” Another fast-paced foot-stomper, “Kelly’s Bar” is a vivid, fiddle-driven, cautionary tale about a blurry night in a north country watering hole.

Those ragged fist-pumpers are fun, but the album also reveals a more relaxed side. As the band’s main singer and songwriter, Simonett uses his rustic tenor to deliver earnest folk meditations (“We All Get Lonely” and “Thank You, John Steinbeck”) and occasional forays into sunny vintage pop (“I Went to Hollywood”). During the harmonized chorus in the bouncy rock shuffle of “Right Back Where We Started,” he sounds energized, as if he and his string-pummeling crew—even after 15 years together—still have unfinished business.

Leftover Salmon will play Red Rocks Amphitheater on May 5 with Phil Lesh and the Terrapin Family; Trampled by Turtles will headline the same venue on July 19, with support from the Oh Hellos and Dead Horses. redrocksonline.com

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