Leftover Salmon fans have done their band proud.
When word spread that banjo player Mark Vann had lost his bout with cancer on March 4, the band's post office box in Nederland began to swell not only with cards of condolence, but with checks and other pledges of financial support for Vann's family. According to Salmon manager John Joy, donations have been collected through the band's merchandise table at live shows (and through its Web site, leftoversalmon.com) since last October, when Vann began receiving intensive treatments to combat a severe form of skin cancer. The fund grew significantly following a series of benefit shows held around the country, including four in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins in November. When Vann died, listeners dug even more deeply than before.
Joy is not at all surprised by the response, since the band's relationship to its fans has always been more filial than formal. Leftover performances often feel like backyard barbecues, complete with guest appearances from the occasional cartoon character or sidekick. "The amount of support has been overwhelming, in a lot of ways," he says. "Without a doubt, I think Leftover's fan base is just some of the greatest people, just really caring."
Scruffy, smiley and earthy-looking enough to pose for a Colorado tourism catalogue, Vann, in particular, projected an energy that was about letting go, not ego.
"The band itself is the realest group of people I've ever known," Joy says. "I always comment that they are in front of the stage as much as on the stage. They're not like some bands that go on and then go off and go backstage and don't want to be bothered. They want to be surrounded by fans. Mark always did, too. There's a band-fan connection that's different from any band I've ever worked with or known. So I think it works both ways."
Fan donations have been enough to make a significant dent in the expenses Vann's family members incurred during his treatment, Joy says. But he also suggests it may be a while before they're free of the financial anxiety that so often accompanies grief. Fortunately, Vann was insured at the time he became ill, unlike many artists (including Victoria Williams and Vic Chesnutt, both beneficiaries of the Sweet Relief fund to assist ailing musicians). But comprehensive health-care plans are just one mark of stability that many independent-minded musicians forgo when they make the choice to pursue an art form as a living. In the end, Vann and his wife, Jennifer, simply weren't prepared for what awaited them.
Vann left both a carpentry business and college in Colorado to purse his picking full-time, a decision that eventually led to the formation of Leftover Salmon in Telluride in 1989 with fellow bluegrass devotees Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman. And though the band can be considered forebears of the jam-grass movement, they've never quite attained the commercial success of contemporaries like the String Cheese Incident. Staples of summer festivals and year-round touring, Leftover is a hardworking, but hardly rich, band.
Vann -- known to friends and fans as "Banjovi," a nod to his minor resemblance to the New Jersey rocker whose talent he easily surpassed -- played on six Salmon albums, including 1999's Nashville Sessions, which cemented the band's reputation as an important voice in bluegrass preservation and paired its players with such luminaries as Waylon Jennings, Sam Bush, Béla Fleck and Del McCoury. Vann also appears on the new CD, Live, a compilation of recordings made during some of the band's shows in Colorado, California and Lesterville, Missouri (home of the annual Salmonfest concert). Joy says Leftover plans to release Live (named for the verb, not the adjective) in May -- and to carry on as before. Though several tour dates were postponed around the time of Vann's death, the band will resume touring in mid-March, beginning with a sweep through the Southeast.
"Everyone is trying to push forward, and it's been a tough time for everyone involved," he says. "The band's definitely going to continue...same name, same lineup. Mark hadn't been playing with us for the past six months. We've had friends fill in on banjo, a revolving door of players. That will continue for a while. At the moment, it's just too soon to think about finding someone permanent."
Mark Vann was 39 when he died. At his memorial service in Rollinsville last week, which was closed to the public and attended by one hundred friends and family members, his pals from the String Cheese Incident and the Yonder Mountain String Band, along with his remaining Leftover bandmates, gave him a proper sendoff: They played bluegrass songs.
Donations to the Mark Vann fund may be made via P.O. Box 393, Nederland, CO 80466.
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The music never stops.
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