Leftover Salmon, The Showbox, Seattle- 2/4
I love being surprised by music and though I risk appearing jaded, it regretfully doesn't happen nearly as often as it used to. So you can imagine my glee when I had three pleasant surprises in one evening in early February at the Showbox in Seattle. It was so long ago that I saw Colorado's Leftover Salmon, I can't remember when it was; so when I had a chance to check em out gratis, I jumped at the chance. I have many buddies who are self-confessed Salmon Heads, many who swim far and wide to check this band out. Somehow amidst their adulation and excitement and oodles of other bands out there, I just missed the Salmon boat. With the motto "polyethnic Cajun slamgrass" etched in my brain and my memory failing me, I had few preconceived notions about what the show would be. I hungered for heavy rhythms laced with reciprocating melodies and crowd-rallying jams; secretly I hoped there wouldn't be too much twang-diddily-dang bluegrass sound as it's never really buttered my muffin, but I was game for anything. Lucky, that's just what we got three surprise guests sandwiched in between a total of three ripping sets of music.
The first shocker bestowed upon us occurred even before the LOS show got underway, and one could argue this was the catalyst for the high-energy rally that followed. Democratic nominee candidate Dennis Kucinich ascended the stage and put it to the people. Topics ranged from the mounting distrust of our current administration to college loans and tax cuts to the environment (remember the whole Spotted owl thing in Washington a few years back?). Politically appealing to an often-overlooked community perhaps due to a perceived disillusionment or apathetic attitude Mr. Kucinich certainly raised awareness by speaking on these issues and other realms of social reform. I spoke to many folks over the course of the evening that appeared to have a genuine interest in what the man had to say and were all impressed that he had tried to connect in such an unconventional setting. He may or may not be the candidate for me, but the Political Science major in me was all a flutter with the merging of two of my passions; music and policy. Well received by a crowd of about 500, it was Mr. Kucinich who then announced Leftover Salmon to the audience, and onto the stage.
Opening with "Gold Hill Line," it was immediately clear to me that this was not the Leftover of a few years back. And why should they be? There have been major roster changes, with only two original members remaining. Yes, the vocals sounded familiar, but the sound was far heavier and more rock oriented than I had remembered Leftover's sound being. The effect was plush and full sound, yet straight ahead, basking in a sound as big as their native Rockies. The warm and welcoming sound of the mandolin fluttered around the drums and percussion, mingling with, and trickled over fat bass lines, rallying the crowd up and outwards. The first set, though it seemed to run short, ranged through older and newer tunes, rounding out with the delicious Cajun-laced of "Mama Boulet."
The second surprise was Tim Reynolds, who provided acoustic live set-break music. Apparently Reynolds is a big Kucinich supporter, believing he is what a "caring public servant [should] be," and he has appeared with him in benefits and rallies before. Simply a man and his guitar, he played for just under an hour, songs with lyrics and cascading instrumental numbers. I recognized perhaps two or three of them from the Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds disc, Live at Luther College, but everything else was new to me. Apparently he is a self-taught guitarist and that is evident in his non-conformist style and highly eclectic sound. Alternating between harmonic delicacy and explosive chord progressions and fevered strumming, everyone's attention was held rapt. A minimalist arrangement of the Beatles' "All You Need is Love" morphed into an eastern wall-of-sound feeling cover of Zep's "Kashmir." I didn't sense that he used many pedals of effects to create his stunning set, which made his set all the more fascinating and unlike any set-break I've ever experienced.
Leftover's second set kicked off with "Breakin' Through," and Seattleite Jose Martinez, did a fine job of keeping the beat interesting. Given his style in The Motet, it was interesting to hear a drummer trained in a jazz and fusion style play a show in a predominately bluegrass and country style. Within the first couple of tunes of the set, the band slipped into a psychedelic, ductile jam that lasted for about 10 minutes. Even within such a spacey jam, there was a funky and jazzy undercurrent weaving and pulling the rest of the band in what felt like a fluid and forward motion. Locked in step with Greg Garrison's groove-rooted bass lines, I really dug the overall fatter, warmer, low-end sound of LOS' rhythm section. Quite regrettably I felt that Bill McKay's swirling, carnivalesque keys were sometimes held at bay by the sheer momentum of Noam Pikelny's cyclic banjo and Drew Emmitt's mandolin and guitar, but when Bill played a lead line or a solo, he came out swinging. I especially favored his funkier, dare I say electronica sound, often akin to Herbie Hancock's melodic progressions. The three of these guys, at times, were almost totally responsible for the infectious energy passed to and around the crowd. Out of close to 12 tunes in the second set, included were "Railroad Highway," "Midnight Blues," "Euphoria," and "Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow."
Towards the end of the second set a couple members of the opening act, Mary and Mars, were welcomed to the stage. I had missed the opening act, so this was my first exposure and given Leftover's sound, their added effect was pretty innocuous. Then, adding one more to the mix, everyone welcomed to the stage Jim Page, a longtime LOS collaborator. Called the "bastard son of Woody Guthrie," he is known as much for his solid political stance and wit as for his musical prowess. Amidst others, he led the Salmon through his signature tune, "Naked Underneath Your Clothes." At the end of the set Tim Reynolds came back out for a wonderful take and LOS staple of the Stones' "Let It Bleed." There was so much happening on stage, if one weren't paying very close attention, one certainly could have missed out.
With all the guests and food for thought, the evening was a wild ride, commanding my attention and reawakening my ears and mind to an incredibly versatile band with surprisingly wide appeal. Historically music has been a method to comment on political climate and I was impressed with the strong message put forth at this show now is the time to be aware, involved, and responsible for your future (perhaps so you never have to stop having fun). Since I had few expectations going in I was pleasantly surprised by the direction this show took, but I was not blown away. There was good flow marked by exceptional bursts from different artists throughout the evening, but I never felt that these guys were leaving their comfort zone or the safety of familiarity despite all the guests. Given their ecumenical approach to music, I hope that Leftover is able to maintain this successful mix, rather than straying into disjointed and idiosyncratic personality crises some bands encounter within their evolution. Regardless of what happens, though, on the night of February 4th the Showbox was again a place where musicians with varied and wide influences and well-crafted tunes met and enveloped an audience ready to party, and that was just fine by me.