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Published: 2007/05/23
by Brian Ferdman

Years in Your Earsa Story of Leftover Salmon


Anyone who was fortunate enough to see Leftover Salmon in their prime knows that this was an incredibly entertaining band that could play their unique blend of “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass” at breakneck speed. But exactly how did the band get their start? Where do they fit in the pantheon of bluegrass and jambands? Why did their career fizzle out without much fanfare? Years In Your Earsa Story of Leftover Salmon, a documentary by Eric Peter Abramson, attempts to answer some of these questions and disappointingly ignores some of these questions, as well.

The story of Leftover Salmon is told through interviews with well respected bluegrass and Colorado musicians. From these interviews, we learn that this band had a profound influence on the music of Colorado, as well as the newgrass world. Their addition of drums to the sound was a revelation for bluegrass, and their presence would eventually turn the Telluride Bluegrass Festival on its head, taking New Grass Revival’s rebelliousness and multiplying it times 100, transforming bluegrass festivals from leisurely outings for the buttoned-down set into wild and crazy hoedowns for freaks of all shapes and sizes. As Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, and others attest, the guys in Leftover Salmon had tremendous skills to go along with their off-kilter sense of humor, and Bush even laughs while recalling how it was a struggle to keep up with their insanely fast tempos.

Not only did Leftover Salmon change the bluegrass scene, but they also had a direct influence on the development of numerous Colorado bands, such as Yonder Mountain String Band, Shanti Groove, and String Cheese Incident, who speak of being amazed by their live show to such a degree that they initially began covering Salmon’s tunes. Along with Phish and Widespread Panic, Leftover Salmon were part of that initial wave of 1980s jambands, although the documentary avoids asking why they never received the kind of sweeping success that graced their brethren. Moreover, aside from a mere mention that the band was formed when The Left Handed String Band was missing a couple of players and needed some last-minute substitutes from the Salmonheads for a gig, we never find out much about the band’s inception. Who was in which band? What happened to the missing band members? We do learn that the Colorado bluegrass scene was a summer-only gig in the late 1980s, so Leftover Salmon decided to electrify and amp up their music to play for hopped-up skiers in the winter. However, the details of the early days are few and far between. By the same token, we hear almost nothing about the final days of the band, and while banjo player Mark Vann’s passing is given a fair amount of air time, we never hear even a mention of his eventual replacement, Noam Pikelny. While Johnny Hickman and David Lowery of Cracker are interviewed, we don’t hear very much about their brilliant collaboration with Salmon, O Cracker, Where Art Thou?

What we do get are great displays and tales of the band’s legendary antics both on and offstage. Some excellent footage captures clown prince Vince Herman pulling out his riotous improvs in numerous venues, and where footage does not exist, the interviewees tell great stories of bizarre backstage/campground fun and hi-jinks. Musically speaking, the performances are excellent and include nearly ever major number from the Salmon catalog. While it would have been nice to see more uncut selections, this is but a small quibble because by and large, the editing is rather tasteful.

For some odd reason, the two surviving core members of the band, Herman and Drew Emmitt, are not interviewed in the feature film, as drummers Michael Wooten and Jeff Sipe are the only band members who get interview screen time. Both Herman and Emmitt do get some time to answer questions in the DVD extras section, but their sessions feel more like an addendum than the main course. In addition, neither interview really tackles the interesting questions surrounding the band’s beginning, ending, and attempts to continue after Vann’s passing.

Years In Your Earsa Story of Leftover Salmon does an excellent job telling many stories about this band, but it doesn’t really tell the band’s story. Hardcore and longtime fans may know the ins and outs of this one-of-a-kind outfit, but the rest of us still have many questions. Nevertheless, if you missed the band’s fifteen year run, or if you caught it and want to relive those heady and hilarious days, this DVD gives many great glimpses of these whacked-out pickers at work. If nothing else, Leftover Salmon was a band that believed in celebration. In fact, more than once on the DVD, someone makes a point of saying that the only reasons Americans spiritually gather in this day and age is for religion, sports, politics, or music, and this DVD is proof that Leftover Salmon used their time on stage as the high priests of unbridled joy and happiness. One look at the concert footage of grinning, costumed fans will tell you that their message was quite infectious.

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