Leftover Salmon at the Georgia Theatre, Athens, GA, October 9, 2012. Photo by Jeff Pearson.
“We’ve been wondering for a long time what this theatre was going to look like when it was rebuilt,” singer/guitarist Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon told the eager crowd, still filing into the Georgia Theatre, on Tuesday. It was something a lot of us wondered, afraid that some of the spirits of those roaring crowds that made the Theatre so special for so long had left their place at Lumpkin and Clayton Streets in downtown Athens, perhaps finding a new haunt when there were no longer walls to reverberate through. It’s true that there was a lot of doubt mixed in with the anticipation of having the venue back after its tragically destructive fire in 2009; it was hard to believe they could—if they were even going to try to—ever recapture that magic that lived there. The last time Leftover Salmon visited the Georgia Theatre was over ten years ago, after practically yearly visits throughout the mid-to-late nineties as a blossoming group newly pushing the limits of bluegrass music. Now, twenty-two years into their career as a band, Leftover Salmon is back at the Georgia Theatre to prove that those spirits haven’t gone anywhere.
The Boulder, Colorado group came out firing, immediately showing that ability to push bluegrass’ limits with “Zombie Jamboree,” a calypso classic made popular by Harry Belafonte, made explosive by Leftover Salmon. The crowd’s faces immediately stretched into a collective smile as the band, bolstered by the Del McCoury Band’s Jason Carter on fiddle, ripped through their bluegrass-infused version. By opening the show with “Zombie Jamboree,” Leftover Salmon immediately displayed their versatility to the crowd; over the course of their twenty-two year career they have picked up various styles and interpolated them into their ever-growing sound. From their humble “slamgrass” beginnings to the dynamic live band they are still after all these years, all the heartbreaks and joys in between, Leftover Salmon is a stronger band than ever in 2012. On Tuesday night, the band would constantly prove this, bouncing in and out of bluegrass to everything from funk and rock to jazz and calypso. The seamless and effortless nature that Leftover Salmon can weave different modes into their sound is what makes them so impressive.
The first set mostly revolved around their latest record, Aquatic Hitchhiker, Leftover Salmon’s first record in seven years and one of their most cohesive to date. The band swung through the low-country stomp of “Gulf Of Mexico” and “Keep Drivin’,” multi-instrumentalist Drew Emmitt making use a glass slide and distortion pedal to will his mandolin to wail to the heavens. Emmitt and Herman traded off song after song throughout the first set, mixing Herman’s back porch vocal style with Emmitt’s more refined voice. Though Emmitt may have a smoother vocal delivery, the musical tone of the evening was a consistently raucous party. Set closer “Euphoria” was probably the most aptly placed track for the occasion; by the time the band finished trading off extended solos on the song from the 1997 record of the same name, euphoric would be the perfect word to describe the mood in the Georgia Theatre.
As opposed to dampening that euphoria, the setbreak only served to build upon the momentum Leftover Salmon created with the electric first set. They picked up right where they left off with the Aquatic Hitchhiker stand-out “Liza.” The fast-paced bluegrass of “Liza” gave way to a spacy “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” segue into the always explosive “Doin’ My Time.” The band plowed through nearly fifteen minutes of nonstop jamming as each member displayed their incredible instrumental prowess. Drummer Greg Garrison and bassist Jose Martinez kept the propulsive train on the tracks as Emmitt, Carter and banjo player Andy Thorn traded solos; with each tradeoff the crowd seemed to grow more rowdy, the band rolling the entire venue up into a ball of energy and allowing it to burst in a bright flash during the track’s climax. It was moments like this that made the night so special; a mood like the one Leftover Salmon cultivated onstage Tuesday is completely infectious. Even those sitting in the balcony were lost in their own particular seat-dance—not a booty was left unshaking, even those planted in seats.
Right when it seemed the night wasn’t going to get any better, David Lowery of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven—a long-time friend and collaborator of the band—joined Leftover Salmon on stage to play guitar and elevate the show to even greater heights. The now septet worked their way through Leftover classics “Get Off This” and “Low,” then finally treating the appreciative crowd to Cracker’s “Teen Angst.” By this point, I believe the band could do no wrong, driving the energy up with each song. They worked their way through classic cuts, “Highway Song” and “Jokester,” interweaving them with new songs “Walkin’ Shoes” and set closer “Here Comes The Night,” blurring the line between what is considered “classic” within their catalog. The new material shone just as bright as songs that have bounced off the walls of the Georgia Theatre time and time again.
Tuesday was the first time since the Georgia Theatre has been rebuilt that it truly felt like the Georgia Theatre to me. I was among those who thought that perhaps the magic couldn’t be brought back. Leftover Salmon came to Athens to revive those spirits that we thought were lost years ago in that tragic fire, but they did much more than that. They showed that there is always going to be a place for a bluegrass band of miscreants in the world of music. After twenty-two plus years of touring, the joy they bring to their music is just as palpable as the days when they were finding their footing in small clubs. As they closed the night off with “Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie,” staple in the bluegrass community for so many years, they shared that joy to the fullest with the crowd, and saw it returned in full by the bodies dancing in reckless abandon—and reckless union.