Andy Thorn, the banjo player for the Colorado-based band Leftover Salmon, will never forget his first trip to the Aiken Bluegrass Festival.
“I actually played the Aiken Bluegrass Festival the night before my college graduation in 2005,” Thorn said, laughing. “I was with Larry Keel back then, and that’s when the festival was right downtown on the street, if I recall correctly. I just have the best memories of that year because that was sort of my early days on the music scene and I got to jam with (bluegrass legend) Peter Rowan. And then I got to play with Big Daddy from Acoustic Syndicate.”
The festival that night was so sensational that several of the bluegrass musicians decided to continue jamming into the wee hours of the morning, Thorn said.
“After the show, we had an all-night jam with Big Daddy from Acoustic Syndicate. It was incredible,” Thorn said. “Finally, I remember Jenny Keel coming over and saying, ‘Andy, I think we need to leave right now if you are going to make your college graduation. Like, right now!’”
Thorn said he looked at the clock and it was already 6 a.m.
“My college graduation was at noon back in Chapel Hill, N.C.,” Thorn said, chuckling. “We raced out of there. It was close, but I made it. I was maybe a little haggard-looking when I got there, but at that age, you can pull it off. That’s a fun memory for me.”
Ever since then, Thorn said he cherishes the atmosphere and camaraderie among the musicians at the Aiken Bluegrass Festival.
“Last year, that was so fun with the different sets that they put together. Like the ‘Guitarmageddon’ set was one of my favorite sets last year. It was like Larry Keel and Billy Strings and (Leftover Salmon’s guitarist and singer) Vince Herman and Brad Parsons,” Thorn said. “There were six guitar players on stage, and they were singing and they just pulled off the most interesting set that I could have imagined.”
And while the show on the main stage in front of the audience is mind-blowing at the Aiken festival, the bands backstage come together and celebrate like family, Thorn said.
“There is a constant jam happening for whoever is warming up or getting ready to go on. And so that’s one of the coolest parts of the festival,” he said. “There’s always some good picking going on backstage and some serious ping pong, too. In fact, I need to practice a little bit of ping pong before I head to Aiken. Some of those guys were pretty good.”
This year, Leftover Salmon will be part of the 14th Annual Aiken Bluegrass Festival scheduled for Friday, May 11, and Saturday, May 12.
And with the band’s new album coming out on May 4, Thorn said the Aiken audience will be one of the first to hear some of the new songs live.
“The new album is called ‘Something Higher,’ which it’s not about pot,” Thorn joked. “It’s sort of like a higher meaning or higher life, and I think it’s kind of fitting for the times now. And it’s just a really cool record where everybody contributed original songs, and I think it features our current band really nicely. So we’re excited about it.”
For almost 30 years, Leftover Salmon has been known as a band that’s clearly schooled in traditional bluegrass music, but has the depth of talent to be able to explore beyond those time-honored sounds and push songs in new psychedelic directions.
In fact, when Leftover Salmon takes the main stage at the Aiken Bluegrass Festival on Friday, May 11, around 10 p.m., the audience better be prepared to jam, Thorn said.
“Well, Leftover Salmon has always been one of the great live bands,” Thorn admitted. “I have been in the band nine years, but I was seeing them as a teenager back in North Carolina. The first thing that I noticed about them was how much fun they have.”
“Vince (Herman), who is the leader, is the king of fun, basically,” Thorn added. “And he is the king of experimentation and improvising and riffing off the cuff. You definitely never know what is going to happen on stage.”
Many even consider Leftover Salmon to be the architects of this unique sound known as “Jamgrass” because their music flows freely from all kinds of influences such as rock ’n’ roll, folk, bluegrass, Cajun, soul, zydeco, jazz and blues.
“And you never know what Vince is going to do while leading the show,” Thorn said, laughing. “Like, this weekend while I was playing in Las Vegas, I was taking a long banjo solo and the crowd is going wild and I was thinking, ‘Oh, wow. I’m killing it.’ But it turns out, Vince is just behind me, freaking out basically. And I didn’t even know it was happening until he actually started touching me. Those are some of the funny antics that can happen up there on stage.”
Leftover Salmon, along with several of the other Jamgrass or progressive bluegrass bands featured at the Aiken Bluegrass Festival, will undoubtedly enthrall the audience with their unpredictable approach to fusing together different musical styles, Thorn said.
“That’s becoming the case more and more on the scene these days, which is really cool because if bluegrass is going to keep living on, it needs to attract a younger crowd,” Thorn said. “But it’s also nice that there’s still a lot of appeal for the rootsy bluegrass, too. Because I love that stuff. After all, it’s best to learn the roots first and then experiment from there.”
The Aiken Bluegrass Festival
Friday, May 11, and Saturday, May 12
561 May Royal Drive