What’s the likelihood of being able to see Leftover Salmon at the smallest venue the legendary jamband has probably ever played? It happened last night at Bowery Electric, a spot where you’d hardly expect to see these summer festival vets. For what it’s worth, this wasn’t the crew who made a name for themselves as jamgrass pioneers. Sure, many of the songs started out with a scampering bluegrass groove and then went further and further outside, but this new version of the group is more psychedelic than ever. Their brand-new album is aptly titled Something Higher, working an epically vamping, stylistically puddle-jumping blueprint that the Grateful Dead refined at their majestic, early 80s peak. Yet this version of Leftover Salmon are also a lot tighter than the Dead ever were.
The addition of keyboardist Erik Deutsch has completely transformed the band. He started out playing ragtime and honkytonk-influenced piano. By the time the set was over, he’d spun through lowdown clavinova funk, dub reggae, majestic art-rock synth vistas, swirly Doorsy organ interludes and a couple of wryly hobbity detours that wouldn’t have been out of place in early 70s Jethro Tull.
No matter what style they’re using as a lauching pad, this band has always been about the jam, and this show was a clinic. The trippiest, most adrenalizing tradeoffs were between Deutsch and Andy Thorn’s banjitar, which he was running through a delay pedal for a stunningly spot-on approximation of a steel pan. While Thorn’s rapidfire frailing fueled the most Appalachian-flavored moments, he was just as much a force throughout the show’s most ambitious, artsy points.
Bushy-bearded group partriarch and guitarist Vince Herman waited til the end of the set, during the cheery gospel-flavored singalong Let In a Little Light, before he fired off a series of breathtakingly effortless volleys of bluegrass flatpicking. Likewise, six-string bassist Greg Garrison hung back in the pocket for the most part, taking over lead vocals on the night’s two most vintage soul-oriented numbers. As it turns out, the band’s strongest singer is drummer Alwyn Robinson, who took over the mic on one low-key number and also harmonized with founding member/mandolinist Drew Emmitt (whose searing, tantalizingly brief Strat leads had every bit as much voltage as his endlessly machinegunning mando runs).
A Brooklyn violinist joined the group a few songs in and contributed bouncy bluegrass as well as more uneasy textures. The night’s most surreal song was House of Cards, a sticky tarpit of dub fueled by Deutsch’s tersely warpy, oscillating leads. The most exhilarating was Astral Traveler, which with its towering, gale-force chorus would have been a standout Bob Weir number in any 80s Dead second-setlist – it was easy to imagine that band taking a flying leap into it from, say, Saint of Circumstance as the show peaked out.
The new album’s title track was a launching pad for slashing Emmitt riffage and tight solos all around. The band opened both Foreign Fields and Game of Thorns as broodingly spiky, serpentine bluegrass and sailed into the clouds from there. And Burdened Heart was no less potent for being downbeat, the group eventually vamping out a long interlude midway through, Emmitt and Deutsch pawing the seeds and stems to uncover the sweetest, most pungent buds. Leftover Salmon’s endless tour continues; the next stop is this May 10 at 8 PM at the Boathouse, 11800 Merchants Walk in Newport News, Virginia; cover is $20.