When Greg Garrison moved to Greeley in 1997, he might not have envisioned a future in a fish-themed jamgrass band. Garrison, now a full-time professor of music at CU Denver, arrived from Chicago to study bass performance at the University of Northern Colorado. Within three short years, the scholar segued from pondering the finer points of theory to propelling the low-end for Leftover Salmon.
"I started playing with Salmon in 2000," says the 43-year-old father of three, husband and Lakewood resident. "At the time, I was a freelancer playing in wedding bands and also doing some touring with the Motet, so I had friends in the music scene up in Nederland. They jammed a lot at a thing called Nederland Acid Jazz, which was put on by Michigan Mike, who founded NedFest. My interactions with those people got me in the orbit of Leftover Salmon. And when Tye North left the band, Dave Watts [of the Motet] recommended me for the gig. I've now been in the band longer than any other bassist."
Fans of Salmon will appreciate Garrison's seasoned time-keeping as the group takes the stage at the Boulder Theater for two nights after Thanksgiving. This year marks the sixth that the band has performed in Boulder on the weekend after turkey day. With a new album on the horizon and an ongoing aggressive touring schedule, the self-described "polyethnic Cajun slamgrass" act arrives in energized form.
"We've been really inspired by the tour that we're currently doing," says Garrison on a phone call from the road in Virginia. "There's lots of energy coming toward the band right now. I haven't see it like this in a while. It's been all-acoustic, with a living-room theme. We picked up paintings from thrift stores and some lamps and chairs that we put on stage. I've been playing an upright bass instead of my usual electric rig, so there are no amps. But for the Boulder shows, we'll be back in full electric mode, along with a horn section. We're really looking forward to it."
Leftover Salmon's history in Colorado includes legendary performances up and down the Front Range, as well as countless romps through the high country. The band played its first show in Crested Butte in January 1989, and since then has added other ski towns, including Steamboat and Aspen, to its regular schedule, along with plenty of larger venues, such as Red Rocks and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Garrison estimates that the group performs roughly eighty shows each year, sixteen of those in Colorado.
"We enjoy playing at the bigger venues like Red Rocks, of course, but we also like to stay accessible and play smaller spots in the mountain towns that our fans like," he says. "We do an annual thing at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, and Boulder is always a stop, and we like to hit Fort Collins when we can. Colorado just has so many great places to go."
Garrison says that in Boulder the band could play a few of the songs from its forthcoming CD, Places, which is due out next spring. The act has a festive tradition of guest sit-ins by local musicians, and the two-night stand will spotlight trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick of the Trey Anastasio Band, tenor saxophonist Skerik, and Denver trombone player Adam Bartczak. Leftover Salmon's horn section goes by the name of the High Country Horns.
"We've got The Grant Farm opening up on Friday and The Drunken Hearts on Saturday," Garrison says. "Tyler Grant is a great friend of ours, and we always like to play with him when we can. And we usually call our buds from the [Infamous] Stringdusters and Yonder Mountain String Band too. No guarantees, but there could be some surprises."
Over the years, Salmon has amassed fans in California, the Midwest, North Carolina, Virginia and various other spots across the country. Band frontman Vince Herman has been known to play shows under the banner of Vince and Friends, which sometimes includes Garrison, at places including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
"Our current touring schedule feels like a sweet spot," explains Garrison. "We do it enough to where people can consider it a full-time occupation if they need to, but it also leaves us with time to pursue other things."
The current version of Leftover Salmon comprises Garrison; Herman; Drew Emmitt; drummer Alwyn Robinson, who will have been with the group for five years in May; keyboardist Eric Deutsch, now in his second year; and banjoist Andy Thorn, who is in his eighth year. While Salmon sprung from the hills of Nederland and pulled some of its personnel from the Front Range, a few members now live out of state: Herman in Ashland, Oregon, and Robinson and Deutsch in Brooklyn, New York.
"The sound of the band has gotten a little bit bigger," says Garrison. "Since we re-committed a few years ago to using keys, with the addition of Bill Payne, and now Erik Deutsch, we have a modern-rock element in addition to our traditional rootsy sound, which is always there. In the last three years, I'd say we've gotten better as a unit. We understand each others' strengths and weaknesses. But part of the joy of the band for people is that it's unrefined and off-the-cuff, with a bar-band mentality. So the trick is to retain that while trying to make it refined and professional, too."