By Kevin Alan Lamb
In music, no different than life it seems we learn to find our way with the influence of those who have come before and find our way to evolve by continuing to listen to those who come after. We rarely know what is going to work, when it’s going to work, and when to let go or push harder as we meet adversity along the road to self-discovery; but if we surround ourselves with positive-minded people who carry a mission of love and community in their hearts, happiness will be the traveled journey, not the elusive destination.
In 1989, just four years after I was born, Leftover Salmon was founded at The Eldo Brewery & Venue on New Year’s Eve, at a time it was great to be a ski bum in Colorado. Like many of the most precious experiences in this lifetime, it happened by accident, in what just so happened to be the right time and the right place for the birth of Slamgrass. They couldn’t have known it at the time, but on that particular winter evening in Crested Butte, Colorado, a movement was set into motion that would have a pervading effect on all of our lives. A movement destined to intersect with fellow legends of jam who would collectively create, cultivate, and culminate coliseums of cultural standing stones, giving great hope for the future of rock and roll.
Vince Herman, co-founder of Leftover Salmon is one of those legends, and for the first time in over a decade, he is returning to Greater Detroit to play The Parliament Room at Otus Supply on October 15.Here is my conversation with the man who infuses positive energy into whichever stream he swims, and ensures life be a little more fun when he’s around.
Alright, good morning. This is Vince Herman, answering some questions for you here.
Who recently, when you’re having a shitty day, do you find yourself listening to?
When I’m having a shitty day, I’ll be listening to Eddie Harris and Les McCann to a tune called “Compared To What” with Bruce Hampton. That turned me on to trying to make it real compared to what? It’s all real; good days, bad days. Dig in, get all the time you got, that’s all I say.
Can you share with us some memories/highlights of H.O.R.D.E. Tour in 1997 and the role that tour played on Leftover Salmon’s perception in the music community?
Anyways, some memories of Hord in 97’; I think that might be our first one. We felt really lucky being on such a tour with some cats that we really dug musically. Panic, Bruce Hampton, Blues Traveler, Phish; all these great cats who would grow to become these monstrous size cultural standing stones of our scene. And man it was a great pile of energy to see that this music that sort of took place in our corner of the world was getting a bigger and bigger following. It made me have great hope for our future of rock and roll; to get into those bigger venues and do the kinds of things we did there. But yeah it’s been a great ride.
Please take us to New Year’s Eve, 1989, and describe the events at The Eldo Brewery & Venue that lead to the formation of Leftover Salmon.
New Year’s Eve, 1989 at The Eldo Brewery & Venue was a rowdy scene, ya know the ski bum/ski town kind of scene at the time were pretty riled up and the crowds, they were ready to get at it. Drew and I drove to Crested Butte that day, having just thrown together a band with members of the Left Hand String Band and the Salmon Heads, except the Salmon guys couldn’t make it so we put together some guys from the Left-Hand String Band to complete the band and without any rehearsals or anything we sort of just went at it. The tunes that played kind of bluegrassy old-timey kind of tunes that got the stompin’ goin’ and people got rowdy as can be; slam dancing and soon we didn’t know what was happening or where it was coming from! It was a great time to be in Colorado being a ski bum. I don’t know, I think we were in the right place at the right time for the slam grass to start happening.
They say things are more fun when you’re around; who in your life has served that role and or helped you influence others with your contagious energy?
People who are fun as role models: I would have to say Bob Gabig from the Pittsburgh band, the Blue Orphans, was a major influence growing up. He was the president of the International Hysterical Society. Which always got into hysteria, and really really taught me humor and fun are more than a just an occasional thing, it’s a lifestyle. You have to be committed to it. Early on in my college years, Bob Gabig was in Athens, Ohio, and had a thing called the Blues Farm out there. If you called it the Blues Farm you might get a half hour of a tune played out there before they talked to you and if you didn’t stick through the tune they didn’t want to talk to you. They had a museum with Hank Williams socks out in the barn and they played a three-team football game in a cornfield one time. That was pretty good. Anyway! Yeah, Bob Gabig is a serious musical and hysterical influence. Fred Pritchard, a guy from West Virginia, met him in college and he writes just hysterical tunes. I’ve had a whole pile of fun with him back in the day, definite soulmates on the hysterical realms. Man, I see examples of people living in good, contagious energy live’s all over the place these days and I’m glad to walk that path myself.
Tell folks about slam dancing, and how it influenced y’all to label your music as Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass?
Polyethnic Slamgrass music definitely evolved that night at The Eldo Brewery & Venue where people started slam dancing. Yeah, it was just an artifact of the times I think people wanted to be all up in each other’s face on the dance floor and that’s its own way of turning it up and getting rowdy. There are people that are really good at coming at you then sort of rolling off you at the last minute; it’s a full body contact but not aggressive in your face, full out hitting people. You appeal to them and you roll off. It’s a subtle way of polyethnic slam-grass dancing.
You’ve toured for three decades… gloriously. What are some anchors you’ve utilized to keep the fire ignited and stay focused on your passion?
Yeah, we’ve been at it for three decades. What do I use to keep focused on my passion? I keep listening. I always try to get new stuff in my ears and see what music can do in different context. I long to mirror that and play all kinds of music; I love all kinds of stuff. New content in those forms always fires me up and keeps me going, wanting to recreate that stuff in a context that people are dancing and having a good time. Also, I like to throw in some political messages; messages about love and bringing it all together. The direction our culture needs to go because music needs to do that too. That’s what keeps me fired up; trying to spread the love of music and having that affect our culture. That’s a mission.
Tell us about your family…
I grew up the youngest of seven kids in Pittsburgh. I was my mother’s last chance for a priest. I told her I became one it was just a different congregation [laughing]. But yeah, grew up in an Irish Catholic family; the youngest of seven kids and I just absorbed all the music of my older siblings. Growing up on Motown, Stax Volt, British Invasion, you know early rock n roll. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, David Peel and the Lower East Siders. I’ve got a pretty wide variety of artists from my six older siblings. So I think that’s one of the things that really got my music interest peaked. Then coming from a large family, I went to a lot of weddings and there was always Polka bands, so live music was a thing. And Polka, which I think is going to be the next big American music discovery… polka’s going to be popular coming up real soon. My family yeah, my grandfather was a union steelworker. I definitely grew up in a Blue-Collar world. I dig the values of community, porches, neighborhoods, people navigating their worlds together and making the world one big family.
I understand your brother built you a guitar with rubber bands for strings when you were eight and dressed you like a hippie. Can you produce the picture?
My brother built me a guitar when I was two-three years old made out of plywood and rubber bands. I would play for my mother’s card club. You know we were a pretty strict Irish Catholic German family and we weren’t allowed to be hippies. But my older brothers and sisters would dress me up as one and I’ll send you that photo.
What are your most meaningful accomplishments, outside of music?
Outside of music, I guess raising kids is definitely my biggest accomplishment outside of music. I have two-and-a-half great kids. My oldest boy Collin is thirty. He is a great musician, writer, great cat I just love him. My son Silas is twenty-three and in a band called Gypsy Moon. A phenomenal player, really breaking new ground on mandolin. A really great guitar player, singer, writer, just an all around conscious guy and I’m just proud as can be of my two boys. Then I have a stepdaughter Ruby, she’s twelve and I actually dropped her off at school this morning. She’s a great kid, navigating the world in a million different ways and I’m really proud of her and I’m glad to be part of her life. She explores the world. Those are definitely my biggest accomplishments outside of music. The people of the music world are raising great kids. Man, I love it. It’s a major positive experience for me.
What’s the last song you want to hear before you die?
The last song I want to hear before I die, that would probably be Turlough O’Carolan’s tune “Sheebeg and Sheemore.” I played that tune a whole lot as a lullaby for my kids growing up and I think I want to go out that way. It’s an Irish tune written by an old Irish Fiddler from the 1700’s.
His mother wanted a priest, but must be smiling somewhere knowing she got a Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass prophet. Just in case you were listening for one, This is a Good Sound.