Thursday, March 11, 2010


EMMITT-NERSHI BAND – 3/10/10 Santa Fe Brewing Company, Santa Fe, NM

Two giants of the jam genre – Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon and Bill Nershi of String Cheese Incident – have spent several years building a viable side project called the Emmitt-Nershi band, drawing heavily from the bluegrass/jazz hybrid style of newgrass (pioneered in the 70s by the likes of Tim O’Brien, Béla Fleck and Sam Bush). This was the first night of the 2010 tour and, after admitting they had no set list and would be making it up “on the fly,” the quartet launched into a 2-hour set of ripping originals, covers, and occasional jams which indicate this combo knows exactly what they’re doing, even if they’re making it up as they go.

Opener was Drew’s “Lonesome Road,” recently from his 2002 solo release “Freedom Ride,” but also on the out-of-print “Ask the Fish” from Leftover Salmon in 1995. Being a newgrass show, I should’ve known this would not be the only time the themes of “lonesome” and “road” would come up. Any mando players at home who want to know Drew’s secret on this one: upstroke. Lots and lots of upstroke.

Second song was Bill’s (he dislikes being addressed as “Billy,” by the way, even though everyone I know calls him that) “These Days,” from the Emmitt-Nershi band’s debut album of 2009, “New Country Blues.” Bill admitted in an interview it’s one of his favorites from the new crop, and it seems like a declaration of sorts for him, trying to carve out a quieter, rootsier niche for himself than the overblown colossus that String Cheese Incident became.

Drew took the lead on song three (“Gold Hill Line”), setting the pattern for a mostly back-and-forth-between-Bill-and-Drew show, with occasional instrumentals and duets thrown in for good measure. You may remember this as the standard pattern Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir fell into during the Grateful Dead’s glory days. Of course, if Emmitt-Nershi were going to borrow more heavily from the jam-band template, they’d have to have 2 drummers or 2 guitarists, but they seem content with the string band configuration of banjo, mandolin, guitar, and – oops, electric bass.

But, as stated earlier, this is not your grandpa’s bluegrass. This is newgrass. All bets are off. I did make a note during the next song (Bill’s “When You Coming Home”) that they could’ve sorely used a fiddle in the mix, but this was the first hint at “jamgrass” they’d laid on us all night. The banjo picker, Andy Thorn (from North Carolina, by way of Colorado, according to Drew), laid down some nice fills, and took the lead on the following instrumental, which Drew dubbed “Thorn Pipe.” Whether this was a surfing or smoking reference, I can’t say, but I hope that track makes it onto a recording someday.

Drew and Bill joined voices to lead the cover of Bill Monroe and Hank Sr.’s “Blue and Lonesome,” which might just be the wellspring from which all bluegrass streams flow – note the recurrence of themes like heartache, loneliness, and the healing power of music. As Steve Martin (now a professional banjo picker himself, in a bizarre twist of fate) once said, it’s hard to feel blue when the banjo’s pickin’.

I’ll call everything up to now a warm-up. Next stop on the Emmitt-Nershi train: the String Cheese classic, “Born on the Wrong Planet,” from the 1997 release of the same name. The band and the audience seemed ready to really stretch out at this point and get into a good, long jam. The overall flavor of the show from here on seemed to adopt a “no shoes required” approach. I would later notice (during the super-jammy SCI call-back “Love Is Like a Train”) that Bill wasn’t wearing any shoes on stage – only socks, and that seemed as good an indicator as any that these guys wanted the show to feel like a good porch session. Mission accomplished. I think we all felt like taking our shoes off at this point. Maybe it just took this long for the pre-show ingestions to kick in

I snuck out back to a spot where I could still hear the band but also feed my nicotine addiction, and noticed their unassuming transportation was a Chevy extendo-van with a Thule rack on top. I smiled to think they were touring the country in such an understated ride, and wondered what Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys might’ve used in the early days. Another microbrew from the bar and I was ready to jump into the second half of the show. No set break, by the way, for the curious.

After the instrumental “Flight of the Durban”, which reminds me of “Cosmic Hippo”-era Béla Fleck, Drew told us it was Andy Thorn’s birthday (which it wasn’t), and the audience spontaneously broke into singing “Happy Birthday, Dear Andy,” like suckers. Drew Emmitt – merry prankster, compulsive liar, or too stoned for public? You be the judge.

Drew claimed the next song, “This House,” was co-written with Jim Lauderdale, and that the SCI jam “Jellyfish” was a “true story, written in 4 different bars in Telluride,” but after the not-really-Andy’s birthday thing I’m not sure when we’re supposed to believe him, exactly. “Jellyfish” seemed a good choice to sample from the SCI catalog, with Bill’s rap about hitching a ride from Telluride to Santa Fe with some girls and getting stranded there without a ride back. Appropriately, “Jellyfish” clocked in at 10+ minutes.

“All Night Ride” is a Drew co-write with Colorado near-legend Benny Galloway from 2005’s “Across the Bridge.” Great song, maybe the best on that album – and the “Look for Sasquatch” jokes played well to those familiar with Monarch Pass – but it got me to wishing there had been more sampling from the Leftover Salmon backlist.

Perhaps Drew Emmitt is determined to draw a line in the sand, as it were, gerrymandering his own territory separate and distinct from LOS, similar to what I inferred from Bill’s “These Days” with regard to SCI. If this is indeed the case, they seem to be off to a great start.

Set List:

01) Lonesome Road
02) These Days
03) Gold Hill Line
04) When You Coming Home
05) Thorn Pipe (instrumental)
06) Blue And Lonesome
07) Born On the Wrong Planet >
08) > "Keep Looking for a Train" Jam
09) Down in the Hollow
10) Good Times Around the Bend
11) Flight of the Durban (instrumental)
12) This House
13) Jellyfish
14) Long Road
15) Love Is Like a Train
16) All Night Ride
17) Black Clouds


18) New Country Blues

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THX to Matt Hogan @ SciFidelity for helping me identify most of the song titles!

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