Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Salmon turns bluegrass into party jam

Concert review

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As bluegrass goes through its biggest boom since the mid-'70s, a big part of that boom could be found onstage at the Southgate House Monday night.

The revival is multi-faceted, as first-generation pioneer Ralph Stanley remains constantly on the road, Ricky Skaggs leads the young traditionalists and the O Brother soundtrack took the music mainstream.

But it's eclectic Leftover Salmon that has led a bluegrass youth boom from its home state of Colorado, bringing the dance-crazed hippie atmosphere of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival to audiences all over the country.

"Seems like a good place to play some of that bluegrass music," frontman Vince Herman shouted to the crowd of 350. From there, the band's first three songs provided the blueprint for the night.

They opened with "Little Maggie," by the Stanley Brothers, played pretty straight (despite the presence of Jose Martinez on drums and Bill McKay on keyboards, two instruments that turn bluegrass purists green).

Then it was a tribute to the father of progressive bluegrass, John Hartford, as they did his "Steamboat Whistle Blues."

But the next song was pure Salmon, the calypso-tinged "Carnival Time," as Noam Pikelny's banjo sounded like a steel drum and the rhythm section of bassist Greg Garrison and Mr. Rodriguez locked into a funky island groove.

Multi-instrumentalist Drew Emmit was the focal point of the night, switching between mandolin, fiddle, electric solid-body slide mandolin and electric guitar. He and Mr. Herman traded lead vocals, with Mr. McKay stepping in for several blues-rockers, the best of which was his "Railroad Highway."

The repertoire was wildly varied, a virtual encyclopedia of roots styles blended with just about anything else they thought might work with a banjo. There were jug band sounds in "Blues in the Bottle," an obscure David Bromberg song, "Demon in Disguise," and a hard-driving Bill Monroe tribute that tied together the instrumental "Wheel Hoss" with the bluegrass/rockabilly of "Rocky Road Blues."

The second set featured another Hartford song, "Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie," from the groundbreaking Aereo-plain album, a seminal LP in the first hippie-bluegrass revolution. Salmon's freewheeling approach to source material could best be seen in back-to-back versions of the Stones' "Paint It Black" (done at Warp 10) and a pretty straight version of banjo picker Dock Boggs' 1920s mountain ballad, "Country Blues."

No matter what the band played, the crowd, a mix of young hippies, frat boys and older fans, was up and dancing from the first lick.

Which is just how the Leftover boys like it. This is first and foremost a party band, and while Leftover Salmon lacks the emotional power found in the best bluegrass, they know how to keep a jam moving and how to turn a wintry Monday night bar gig into a real festival, no small feats.


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