Concert Review – Leftover Salmon

Mr. Smalls Theatre – Millvale, PA – 10/2/12

Written by Ryan Neeley for Appalachian Jamwich

Photos by Ryan Neeley and Brian D. Matalik

Have you ever been to a show, and wake up the next morning with shin splints, sore muscles, and cheeks that hurt from cheesing so much?  But if the band was playing again that morning, you’d jump at the chance to do it all over again?    Fans of the slamgrass pioneers Leftover Salmon that packed Mr. Smalls Theatre near Pittsburgh, PA for the tour opener on Tuesday, October 2nd were treated to a swampadelic bluegrass funky-folk throw-down that would highlight the musicians’ dexterity and infectious energy in a way only Leftover Salmon can.

The evening started out with Rusted Root and Pittsburgh’s own Liz Berlin serenading the crowd with her signature grooves while at times going in a different direction than traditional “Root” material.  Berlin has been working on a new project with her husband Mike Speranzo and Frank Spadafora called Drowning Clowns, with many of Pittsburgh’s finest musicians collaborating on the release.   She is comfortable in front of the crowd, a testament to her many years performing, and although most were there to see bluegrass, she did a fine job getting the crowd ready for the act they had been waiting over eight years to see again.

As you scanned across the crowd before the show, you could see eager faces ready for Salmon to shower them in polyethnic Zydeco Cajun rhythms, and the boys delivered a tight set of favorites mixed in with songs from their new album Aquatic Hitchhiker.  Leftover Salmon came out to a crowd ready to explode with anticipation to a driving Liza, a selection off the new album.  Drummer Jose Martinez held down a throbbing rhythm section along with bassist Greg Garrison, laying the foundation for vocalist/guitarist Vince Herman, mandolin-master Drew Emmitt and banjo-picking phenom Andy Thorn to shine, trading licks back and forth like a fast-paced ping-pong game.  Fan favorite That Lonesome Road followed with Emmitt shining, “My father told me ‘You gotta pay your dues – When the life of music is the life you choose.’”  Other highlights of the first set included fresh bouncy release Sing up to the Moon, an impressive Blues in a bottle with soaring electric mandolin work that showcased Emmitt and the Boulder boys’ knack of defying genre, with a down-home blue-inspired finish that B.B. King would salute.

Herman engaged the crowd between songs with a twinkle in his eye and a smile that made you feel welcome, like you were watching him pick in his living room, introducing his brother (Herman lived in Pittsburgh and has family here) and wishing bassist Garrison a happy birthday at different points throughout the show.   They ripped into Gulf of Mexico, a new funky Cajun-inspired nod to the gulf coast oil spill, and made everyone happy with Zombie Jamboree, finishing the set with the party song Ain’t Gonna Work No More, and the dancefloor was filled with spinners, stompers and shufflers.

Set Two rocketed off with Gold Hill Line and Mama Boulet, and they stretched out with the title track of their new album Aquatic Hitchhiker.  Fans would be thrilled with the next selection, favorite Bend in the River, with everyone singing along, “Take me down to the bend in the river… Hold me close under the willow trees.” – The hair on the back of my neck was standing at attention with the electricity running through the theatre.  They would slow it down with the ballady Light Behind the Rain, then thrilled their fans with the song Kentucky Skies – the lyric “hitchhiked out of Pittsburgh to chase the bluegrass dream.” held particular meaning in this former mill town a few miles outside the city, and the crowd roared in approval.  In another nod to the city, the jam-vets played Pittsburgh Town with more licks being traded between banjo virtuoso Thorn, Herman tearing up the guitar and Mr. Mandolin, Drew Emmitt.  There were times during the evening that you had to check to see if Emmitt was playing a mandolin or electric guitar, and Thorn would wow the crowd with his furious picking and driving energy.   But there were also times when Herman stole the show, though not intentionally.   His interaction with the crowd and band is that of a polished showman behind a grizzly graying beard.  They finished with a high-energy The Other Side and took a bow as a group for the first night of their first major tour in over eight years.Pleading for an encore, the boys obliged with another energy filled stompfest Rodeo Geek.

Watching Salmon perform tonight was equivalent to watching magic happen right before your eyes, and everyone I spoke with came away thrilled to be a part of the performance.  “It felt fresh and new as my first time, and yet I felt like I’d been to see their show before. It was comfortable, I felt like I fit right in.  You hear it on a CD and you think, ‘Man I hope they play this song tonight.’  And when they do, it’s transformative.  It’s better than you could believe.  Because it’s happening right in front of you, for the first time,” said Sara Soundcheck of Wheeling, WV after seeing the influential band for the first time.

Speaking with Vince Herman after the show, it seemed he felt the same energy present.  “It was a great way to start the tour.  I love this venue and city.   Pittsburgh came out to support us and it was a great night all around, surrounded by family and old friends.”  The entire performance was tight and balanced, yet improvational and loose at the same time – they sounded and looked like they were in mid-tour form, not opening night.   Any rust that they could have had playing together was blasted off by the picking of Herman, Emmitt and Thorn well before they arrived on Tuesday night, and if the show gets any better during the coming months as they put their focus back into Leftover Salmon, the sky’s the limit.   Leftover Salmon fans can rejoice, as they are back and Cajun infused polyethnic slamgrass lives on stronger than ever.