The music started in the parking lot. Guitar and banjo players strummed from camp chairs set up around a cooler behind a 4Runner. The crowd was the typical bluegrass and jam-band mix that you'd expect at a Leftover Salmon show in Colorado, with equal parts dudes rocking tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirts and others wearing flannel shirts with corduroy hats. Most of the women wore jean shorts or sundresses. Everybody seemed happy, and I heard many exclaim: “We’re back!”
Leftover Salmon started promptly at 7 p.m. with the titular song of the group's new album, Brand New Good Old Days. Vince Herman, the Santa Claus of Colorado bluegrass music, crooned: “These are the brand new good old days / That used-to-was is stuck back in yesterday / It’s never more now than it is today / These are the brand new good-old days.”
The lyrics seemed prescient. Being back at Red Rocks after several years of not going to a show there gave me butterflies. It needs no repeating, but it’s one of the most amazing venues in the world, rivaled in beauty only by the amphitheater in the town park of Telluride, where I grew up and first saw Leftover Salmon at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
Back then, most of us kids didn’t understand the draw of bluegrass. We wanted to see artists that had songs that were on the iTunes charts — rappers and rock bands, not a bunch of old guys plucking banjos. Our favorite band to play bluegrass was Mumford & Sons, which at least made music we could sing along to. Only after I went away to college on the East Coast did I come to appreciate the distinctly Colorado vibe of bluegrass bands like Leftover Salmon. They reminded me of home.
Leftover Salmon has been around for over thirty years now. Its fans range from young twenty-something transplants to bearded old-timers, reminiscent of founding members Herman and mandolin player Drew Emmitt.
Spread out throughout Red Rocks, people bopped to the band's granola-psychedelic grooves and shivered to the extended solos by Emmit and banjoist Andy Thorn. I say bopped because bluegrass fans cannot dance. This isn’t an insult. I can’t dance, either. But the beautiful thing about bluegrass concerts is that everyone is free to do their awkward shimmies without judgment, some people barefoot, though the concrete bleachers of Red Rocks are hardly the grassy fields of a summer music festival.
Leftover Salmon — one of Colorado’s most iconic acts and one of the early pioneers of jamgrass, rivaled only perhaps by the String Cheese Incident — played with energy and soul for three sets. The total show clocked in at over four hours and fifteen minutes.
The band’s first set had a decidedly acoustic bent as the sunset turned Denver's skyline pink. By the second set, everyone was cloaked in the blissful anonymity of darkness as Leftover Salmon plugged in and leaned into a more electric vibe.
I felt out of practice as a music fan and grew tired earlier than I expected, but there was no way I was going to leave early. I shimmied and sang along to covers of songs like “Black Hole Sun” and “Piece of My Heart” and ran into a couple of friends. We hugged and danced.
Though I’d been having a difficult week, for the moment, the music of the “Brand New Good Old Days” was all I heard.
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