Picking a career in (Leftover) Salmon
As a kid growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, Vince Herman's nascent wanderlust manifested itself early and often.
"When I'd see a car go by with out-of-state plates, I'd wait for 'em to come back and ask 'em what it's like" where they live, he recalls with a chuckle. "Be careful what you wish for."
The vehicle that ultimately delivered Herman to the wider world was string music, specifically Leftover Salmon, the acclaimed progressive bluegrass ensemble that fell together in Boulder, Colo., in 1989. After 10 albums, side projects, a few lineup changes and countless miles on the road to gigs big, small and in between, Salmon still serves up its tasty, fun-filled blend of bluegrass, rock, country and cajun/zydeco to intensely devoted followers and new converts throughout the land.
The band will perform multiple sets this weekend at the 17th annual Northwest String Summit festival (NWSS), set for July 19-22 at Horning's Hideout near North Plains. Herman also will perform a solo set at the Ear Trumpet Troubadour Lounge at the Summit's Cascadia Village at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.
For Herman, the band's frontman and guitarist who lives in Ashland, Ore., playing with Salmon at the Summit is a beloved summer ritual.
"There's always a major kind of family gathering there. There's been a lot of years up there of absolute frivolity — and not much sleep," he says.
"Oh, man, Horning's is a great site. (Successful) festivals are usually the product of the guy who owns the property where its held, and (owner) Bob Horning is great guy. He and the people putting it on, they treat people right."
Another appeal for Herman, 56, is the mix of performers, which this year includes such "jam grass" progenitors as Greensky Bluegrass, the Infamous Stringdusters and Fruition along with genre-bending acts like Yak Attack, the Shook Twins and Danny Barnes.
"With the layers of music there, it's really fun," Herman says. "It's progressive, but rooted at the same time. Diverse and energized. It just makes for a good (weekend) with the lineup they've got out there."
Following encouragement from NWSS organizers to think outside the box for this year's sets, Leftover is devoting one on Saturday to a "Funky Brass Breakdown" with the horn section of Skerik, Jennifer Hartswick and Natalie Cressman, and a Sunday show to the deep song bag of Neil Young.
"Greg Friedman, one of the main cats at the festival, said 'I just love it when you guys play funk. You don't do it very often. Why not put together a funk set?'" Herman explains. "We said, 'Sure, why not?'"
The Young set evolved from a Thanksgiving gig a couple of years ago when Salmon performed the Canadian legend's 1972 album "Harvest" in its entirety.
"We wanted something Thanksgiving-like, that feels like home — like a turkey dinner. It went over really well ... Neil's such a great player with such a massive catalog. I love his spirit, and he's a great guy personally. It's great to dig into his repertoire — and everybody loves Neil Young."
Back in his mid-1980s college days at West Virginia University, Herman was one of many Young-influenced pickers and singers who eventually got the bluegrass bug.
"I was de facto majoring in bluegrass and old-timey music," he recalls. "West Virginia is a good place for (that). I left West Virginia in 1985 to move to Boulder. I followed the (W.Va. native Tim O'Brien-led) Hot Rize trail to Telluride and the whole mythical bluegrass scene."
The band's less-than-zingy moniker came through an impromptu 1989 gig combining members of the Left Hand String Band and the Salmon Heads, of which Herman was a member.
"The gig went so well, we ended up on the Colorado circuit ... When one gig went well, five other gigs lined up," he says. "I'm very lucky it worked out this way. I've been in one band since 1990.
"We certainly could've thought of a better name if we'd known we would go this long," he adds, "but once you start there's no turning back."
The current lineup of Leftover Salmon — whose members reside in multiple states — includes Herman (lead vocals and guitar); Drew Emmitt (vocals, mandolin, fiddle, electric guitar), Greg Garrison (bass guitar, vocals), Alwyn Robinson (drums, vocals); Andy Thorn (banjo, vocals); and Erik Deutsch (keyboards).
When not performing with Leftover, which these days mainly convenes for weekend and festival shows rather than extensive tours, Herman performs with his sons Colin, 31, and Silas, 24, as The Herman Clan.
"THC for short," Vince Herman quips. "My son Colin is on bass, sings and writes great songs. Silas is on mandolin and guitar and writes some too. It's the most fun you can imagine, playing music with your kids. It's pretty damn fun."
If Herman's folks had realized what a bond string music would bring to the family, they might've been more encouraging when Vince eschewed a traditional post-college career path back in the 1980s.
"Oh, they tried to talk me out of it for years," he admits, reflecting on his musical path. "There are easier ways to make a living, for sure — but not as fun as this."
At the Northwest String Summit, Leftover Salmon (including Vince Herman) will perform its Funky Brass Breakdown set on the Northwest String Summit Main Stage, midnight-1:30 a.m. Saturday, July 21, and perform the songs of Neil Young, 5:15 p.m.-6:30 p.m., Sunday, July 22. Herman will play a "Be Here Then With Vince" set at the Ear Trumpet Troubadour Lounge — Cascadia Village, 2:30 p.m.-3:15 p.m. on Sunday
For more on the Northwest String Summit, visit stringsummit.com.