A year or two back in Virginia, the renowned jam band Phish and a bluegrass festival shared a parking lot between venues. If you can imagine what the middle of the night, cross-pollinated jam sessions sounded like, you have a pretty good idea of what Leftover Salmon delivers on its new CD, Aquatic Hitchhiker. There’s lots of great picking in a mishmash of styles, resulting in music that will leave some folks dancing and others fuming.
Aquatic Hitchhiker, due out May 22 on Los Records is definitely NOT bluegrass. This is music for the Big Tent crowd, and for some of the songs on this project, you’ll need a really, really big tent.
That said, there’s plenty here that bluegrassers will find familiar, including stellar banjo work from newcomer Andy Thorn, hot mandolin licks from Drew Emmit, and scorching guest fiddling from Jason Carter. The rest of the fish are founding member Vince Herman on guitar, Greg Garrison on bass and Jose Martinez on percussion. All of the regulars except Martinez add vocals.
While true grass is mostly only hinted at here, the band is ready to reach out to the summer festival crowds and try to win some converts.
“I think we can please those people,” Thorn told me the other day. “I think we can win over fans at a bluegrass festival. We can play a full set of bluegrass, including the old standards, or we can play all originals for 10 minutes at a time, depending on the audience.”
The new project features all original material. There’s some Cajun, some calypso, a bit of blues and, yes, a bit of bluegrass. Think The Band meets the Dead meets the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and you’ll be in the ballpark. The end result, Thorn said, is “a little rootsier” than the band’s previous recordings.
While the songs aren’t publicly available yet, I can tell you that even hardcore bluegrass traditionalists will be tapping and bouncing along to Kentucky Skies, which Herman wrote. It gets my vote for best song of the bunch. Lyrically, it’s got just about everything you can find in a bluegrass song – references to Bill Monroe, moonshine, a cabin and, yes, Kentucky.
I first saw Kentucky when I turned 17,
and I hitchhiked out of Pittsburgh to chase a bluegrass dream.
I went to my first festival and I drank a little ‘shine,
watching Bill Monroe sing of Walls of Time.
The instrumental work is solid, too, from Thorn’s John Hartford style banjo kickoff in an Open E tuning to Carter’s sawing on the fiddle. Yeah, there are drums, too, but so it goes.
There are touches of grass, too, in Liza, and on Thorn’s title cut, an intriguing instrumental with stellar picking.
Thorn, the newest member of the band, is from North Carolina and comes from a bluegrass background. He said fitting in with the band was easy because he and others have been friends for many years. But, he acknowledged, “getting used to the whole drum thing and plugging in, that was the biggest challenge.”
That will be a big challenge for many Bluegrass Today readers, as well, but it’s worth making the effort. There’s some great music here, no matter what you call it.