Live – Leftover Salmon
Compass Records 7 4339 2
Over their twelve-year career, one of the most grating elements of Leftover
Salmon has remained the "Festival!" vibe in relation to most of the band's
music. In the past, the band lacked enough musical contributors to prevent
the band from becoming Vince Hermann's chaotic, freewheeling musical
melange. On Live (pronounced "liv"), however, the inclusion of Bill
McKay and Greg Garrison has resulted in more maturity and a more endearing
sound from Leftover Salmon. Certainly the jovial elements are not eliminated
entirely, but a focus from the new band members has resulted in one of
Leftover Salmon's finest group-based releases.
Tracks such as "Steam Powered Aeroplane" and "Railroad Highway" reveal the
astonishing evolution of the band in the last year. Just two year ago, a
piece such as John Hartford's "Steam Powered Aeroplane," would have been a
welter of screams and howls, filled with trammeling banter. With John
Cowan's harmonies and Bill McKay's rolling piano, the performance
memorializes Hartford's passing with an unexpected element of earnestness.
Restraint, not excess, marks the piece, as Emmitt refrains from playing
unwarranted mandolin fills, and Mark Vann plays a rather Hartford inspired
lead on his stump banjo.
Likewise, "Railroad Highway" represents a facet which Leftover Salmon never
previously contained: an entirely original voice offering talented
songwriting. McKay's straight blues transforms Leftover Salmon into a
bluegrass-styled Allman Brothers Band, complete with smoky vocals and Duane
Allman-inspired lead guitar passages. As the piece moves from a rolling
blues to an anthemic chorus, the song recapitulates the band's vast
improvements. When McKay sings "Daddy had an 18 wheeler, but he never drove
it home" honesty exists in his voice, an attribute absent, at times, in
Hermann or Emmitt's singing.
Another result of adding McKay to the band concerns Emmitt's guitar playing.
By simply playing guitar more, as most of the songs warrant an instrument
with more sustain than a mandolin, Emmitt has improved immeasurably. Years
ago, Emmitt would often overplay to an egregious extent. On the album, the
listener can hear McKay playing Hammond swells, building the jams to a point
where Emmitt can bend and bow notes to his liking. At other times, McKay
starts to tone down the sonic levels and rhythms, slowing the band into an
open jam space, where Emmitt must play slow, gorgeous tones rather than the
roadhouse hot licks he often played years ago.
The most stupefying aspect of the album might be the twenty minute "Dark
Green Thing / Out in the Woods." First, "Dark Green Thing", a composition by
Greg Garrison, adds a Celtic, String Cheese Incident-styled piece to the
album. For the first time on a recording, Leftover Salmon actually explores
a song texturally, rather than adding jocular references to TV shows and old
rock songs. Featuring Emmitt on fiddle and Vann leading the melodic
movements, "Dark Green Thing" epitomizes the band's new concerns with the
music rather than putting on a show. As "Dark Green Thing" dissolves into a
space section, the strains of "Out in the Woods" begins. The Emmitt original
has a Little Feat element, similar to his efforts on "Highway Song", from
Euphoria. Overall, the twenty-minute foray is the album's highlight
and underscores the band's stylistic changes.
Given the enormous improvement, the album does not exist as an impeccable
whole. Songs like "Danger Man" and "Unplug that Telephone" – both of which
work adequately in a live setting – lack the melodic depth of the album's
other compositions; offering a glimpse to the band's "Weird Al"
Yankovic-like alter-ego. Despite reversions with certain selections,
Live sounds remarkably tantamount to A String Cheese Incident,
yet from a bluesier perspective: "Get Me Outta this City" equates to "How
Mountain Girls Can Love", "Dark Green Thing" equates to "Lonesome Fiddle
Blues", "Bill's Boogie" equates to "Rhythm of the Road". No wonder the band,
at Mark Vann's behest, chose to continue. Live proves they are miles
away from their tedious mistakes.