A couple years ago during a gig at the Belly Up in Aspen, Vince Herman, frontman of Great American Taxi, stepped to the mike and announced that he was about to sing an "old American folk song." With a smile, Herman led the band in a rendition of "Brown-Eyed Women," a song that might qualify as old - it was released in 1972 - but probably doesn't fit the standard image of a folk tune. The party responsible for "Brown-Eyed Women" was the Grateful Dead, which played its loud, electrified music in packed arenas and stadiums, not pass-the-hat hootenannies.
But Herman is still able to see the Grateful Dead as having one foot firmly in folk roots. (And, as it happens, "Brown-Eyed Women," a countryish tune about bootleg whiskey and set in the first half of the 20th century, represents the Dead at their folkiest.) To Herman, the essence of what the Grateful Dead did was take folk music and put it in a form that made sense for audiences in the 1960s and beyond.
"The Grateful Dead took folk music out of the coffeehouses and into bigger places, and that was a powerful thing to do. They laid a lot of groundwork for people to essentially take folk music and turn it into rock 'n' roll," Herman said from his home in Nederland. "That was a massive groundwork for a lot of bands to stand on."
Among those was Leftover Salmon, the band Herman co-founded with Drew Emmitt and Mark Vann in 1989. The group was informed more by string-band music than by rock; Herman identifies New Grass Revival, who played a revved-up version of bluegrass, and Hot Rize, a Colorado quartet that stuck to the roots of bluegrass, as the two biggest influences on Leftover Salmon. And Leftover Salmon was formed out of a spontaneous, chaotic jam on the stage of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. But Herman and his mates were also walking on ground the Dead had broken two decades earlier.
"When we started, playing bluegrass with drums, it was taking folk music in a certain form, and taking it into rooms where it hadn't been," Herman said. "It was taking folk music and giving it wider exposure."
Herman has dipped his toe into the Dead's repertoire before - in addition to Great American Taxi's cover of "Brown-Eyed Women," Leftover Salmon did a manic twist on the Dead's "Fire on the Mountain," rewritten as "Pasta on the Mountain." But this week he may be diving in deeper than ever. When Colorado's Dead tribute band Shakedown Street celebrates its 25th anniversary with a run of home-state shows, Herman will be on-board as guest vocalist, his first extended connection with Shakedown Street. The tour, which comes to the Sandbar in West Vail on Thursday, also features Melvin Seals, the longtime keyboardist from the Jerry Garcia Band.
Herman had been a musician from a young age, and the Dead were "just one of the bands that were in my head," he said, noting that he was into folkier artists like David Bromberg and Doc Watson. But in 1979, as a high school sophomore, he went to his first Dead concert, at the Stanley Theatre in his hometown of Pittsburgh. That elevated the Dead into their own realm.
"It was pretty magical, eye-opening and a lot of fun," said Herman who, as a student at West Virginia University, spent a good amount of time hitch-hiking to follow the band around. "It was definitely my initiation into the life of the gypsy road musician thing. And still, somehow, the Grateful Dead is a part of every freshman's college experience. I think that culture is enduring. It still carries that '60s counter-culture vibe."
Herman was captivated by the customary things that drew in most Deadheads: the crowd; the musical improvising that made each show unique and gave each performance the sense of jumping off a cliff. "And no one knows how to sing a ballad like Jerry," Herman said of singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia.
But Herman also tuned into some things that probably escaped most concertgoers who weren't headed into a music career of their own. The power of the Dead's sound system impressed him. He also took an interest in the team that the band surrounded itself with. "They had great people around them - the greatest sound techs, the greatest chemists, the greatest lawyers," he said, "to let them have this revolution going on."
Herman points out that the Dead served a vital, if barely noticed service to the country at large. The American economy of the late '60s wasn't big enough to absorb all the baby boomers who were coming of working age. The Dead's traveling circus, and the society that was created around it, provided an alternative that didn't rely on a normal job. "That was a necessary release valve for people to reject the whole corporate world, which didn't have enough room for all these people," he said.
For bands like Leftover Salmon - and Great American Taxi, the country-rock outfit formed by Herman six years ago, which seems largely influenced by the New Riders of the Purple Sage, a band that occasionally featured members of the Dead - the Grateful Dead were a signpost for how to build a career. Allowing fans to tape concerts and trade those tapes might have meant fewer album sales - but it also meant far more popularity as a live act, a more devoted fanbase and greater longevity as a band. Seeing the audience not as people who show up for a night of entertainment but as an extension of the family offered a whole new dimension to being a professional musician.
"We saw that a band is a business, but also a community and a social phenomenon," Herman, 49, said. "The relationship we build with fans is one of the most important aspects of what we do."
And, as Herman is about to reaffirm for himself, the Dead left behind a marvelous catalogue of songs. "The compositions are incredible," he said. "While they were doing folk music, they were also doing fusion jazz, electronic music - it was all over the map. I remember the first time I heard someone call them a country band, I was shocked.
"It leaves you a lot of room. There's a lot of repertoire to think about."
Herman has things on his mind outside the Dead realm. Leftover Salmon, which went on hiatus in 2004, two years after the death of banjoist Mark Vann, and has been very much a part-time entity since 2007, is about to heat up. The band, which recently returned from Jamaica, where it played as part of an annual festival thrown by Little Feat, embarks on the On The Road Again Tour later this month; the nine-city run, which hits Belly Up Aspen on March 9, marks their longest string of shows since 2004. The band is also lining up spring and summer festival dates, with appearances at the Wanee Festival in Florida, the Summer Camp Festival in Illinois, and Floydfest in Virginia.
Even bigger news is "Aquatic Hitchhiker." Due out April 21, it will be the first Leftover Salmon album in eight years. Herman said the band, which is still led by him and fellow co-founder Drew Emmitt, was motivated by the presence of Andy Thorn, who has solidified the banjo slot after several years of rotating banjoists. "For Andy, we wanted to put more energy into the band. An album was the obvious thing to do," Herman said.
The album has been recorded, in Denver and Portland, with Steve Berlin of Los Lobos producing. Herman says "Aquatic Hitchhiker," with all original material, picks up where Leftover Salmon left off.
"It sounds like a Salmon record," he said. "It's Cajun and bluegrass and ballads and calypso. All the stuff a Salmon record should have."