Fans of the self-described "polyethnic Cajun slamgrass" band Leftover Salmon have reason to rejoice this summer, as the outfit is reuniting for a few festival dates in July. But washboard player, vocalist, and guitarist Vince Herman said those shows aren't a sign that the band is back together. His priorities are elsewhere.
"Leftover never really recovered from the passing of [banjo player] Mark Vann," Herman said in an interview last week. (Vann died of cancer in 2002.) "As a business entity and as a musical entity, it just didn't have its old boogie-woogie to it.
"We couldn't imagine going on without him from the beginning, but he really wanted us to," Herman said. "So we kind of did it to uphold that. We did it as long as we could before it was too much."
That was in 2005. Since then, Herman - who spent 15 years with Leftover Salmon - has been busy. He's done solo work and the Spirit of Guthrie tour. And now he's heading out with his new band, Great American Taxi, which will be playing at RIBCO in the District of Rock Island on Tuesday, June 5.
Herman said his heart is fully into the five-piece country-rock Great American Taxi, even though he'll continue to dabble in other projects. "I've got all my eggs in the Taxi basket," he said.
The band has finished its debut CD, Streets of Gold, and will be selling it exclusively via the Internet.
It's a humble start for a guy whose previous band was a respected cult/jam-band favorite on a major label. Leftover Salmon's 1999 album The Nashville Sessions (on Hollywood Records) featured guest turns by artists including Bela Fleck, Taj Mahal, Lucinda Williams, and Waylon Jennings.
Streets of Gold, Herman said, cost about a tenth as much as The Nashville Sessions to record, largely because the technology has changed so dramatically in the past eight years. "You don't need the big budget to make a really good record anymore," he said. "It don't sound cheaper."
And Herman said he's confident that he can build Great American Taxi from the ground up, without the assistance of a major label.
"What they [major labels] provide these days is distribution," Herman said. "I just don't see a role for record companies much any more, although I'd love for one to tell me what it is."
Great American Taxi has been performing for less than two years, but early returns from the festival circuit have been overwhelmingly positive. "Great American Taxi threw down perhaps the best and most spirited sets of the weekend on Sunday night, blending ska, jam, bluegrass, newgrass, Cajun, and a kitchen sink," wrote Jambase.com's Nick Hutchinson of the group's 2006 performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
The band's 2007 schedule includes major festivals and small clubs such as RIBCO. The festivals put the group in front of massive audiences, but shows in smaller venues allow for more improvisation and more interaction with the audience.
While Great American Taxi is more country-rock-oriented than Leftover Salmon, genre elasticity and in-the-moment musical detours are integral to both bands, Herman said
Improvisation is nearly in Herman's blood. He studied acting in college, and for solo shows he often makes up lyrics as he goes along. "The process is really just to become blank, and allow yourself to just go from word to word without concern for what's next," he said. "As you kind of give up having control of it, you ironically kind of get on top of it. The rhymes come, and the topics come."
The seat-of-your-pants approach isn't limited to musical performance. Great American Taxi came together when Herman was asked to perform at a benefit for the Rainforest Action Network. "These are the guys I called up" to perform that show, he said.
Although known for his wit, Herman has a serious side, and he and his partners on the Spirit of Guthrie tour - Jim Page and Rob Wasserman - are considering reuniting in advance of the 2008 presidential election.
Herman said that the United States has lost its moral standing in the world and added that there's a disconnect between the principles of the citizenry and the actions of the government. That's why he's involved the in the HeadCount voter-registration effort.
"I really believe that America is a different place than is reflected in the voting booth," he said, "and voter registration is key to changing that."
Great American Taxi will perform on Tuesday, June 5, at RIBCO. The show starts at 10 p.m.
For more information on Great American Taxi, visit (http://www.greatamericantaxi.net).
To listen to the River Cities' Reader interview with Vince Herman, go to (http://www.qcspan.com).