As a founding member of legendary country-rock group Little Feat, keys player Bill Payne knows a good band when he sees one.
He’s shared stages with James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, members of the Grateful Dead, and the list goes on. But when it came to actually signing his name on the dotted line with musicians other than Little Feat, he chose Leftover Salmon, a Cajun-meets-bluegrass band from Boulder, Colo.
“They’re great musicians with wonderful original material, and the Little Feat songs they’ve been playing sound really good, too,” Payne said. “It’s the way it should be. It’s fun, but it’s also challenging. It’s intricate music, and I’m teaching them some of my songs, too, which aren’t exactly a full circle, they go all over the map.”
Leftover Salmon stops in Charleston on Saturday to headline the Spring Jam Music Festival at Patriots Point during the group’s spring tour promoting “High Country,” its first full-length album in eight years.
With that sort of creative energy surging, Leftover Salmon has rejuvenated its live performances in a way few other 25-year-old bands could. It is luring in an older crowd with jovial performances of Little Feat classics such as “Willin’ ” and “Dixie Chicken,” while Payne’s New Orleans-style keys playing can take Salmon originals in any number of surprising directions.
“After doing this for 25 years, you know, Bill has just been an absolute god-send. There really has been a great increase of all that we could pull off musically,” said lead singer Vince Herman. “I mean he’s one of the cats. So you’ve got to bring you’re A-game when you’re out there playing with Bill. It’s a good thing for fellas like us. We feel incredibly lucky.”
Payne started filling in for former Salmon keys player Bill McKay in early 2013, and he actually produced the band’s self-titled album in 2004. But he didn’t officially accept Herman’s offer to join the group until last fall.
“I said to Vince Herman, ‘Listen, why don’t we consider it like we’re dating right now? We’ll spend time with each other and see,’ ” he said, laughing. “Then we did the Phases of the Moon (festival) and Vince asked again, and I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ ”
Although Payne will still play with Little Feat whenever the group goes on tour, which is rare these days, he said he’s enjoying the gig with Leftover Salmon because he has the freedom to play Little Feat classics while still exploring new, original music.
“Being a part of this band, you’re allowed to grow, which is a super important part of what it’s all about to be creative,” he said.
The band also has recently added Andy Thorn, an electric banjoist who’s played with Tony Rice, Larry Keel and Salmon’s Drew Emmitt in his side project, the Emmitt-Nershi Band.
Herman said the new album began as a series of songs for an exclusive release by Breckenridge Brewery, which included special download codes in its sampler packs of beers from July to October last year.
Once those were down, the group decided to add a few more tunes, including “Bluegrass Pines,” written by Payne and Robert Hunter, longtime lyricist of the Grateful Dead.
Herman said while he likes the new energy of “High Country,” it’s only a teaser of what’s to come from Leftover Salmon’s new roster. The band is already working on another album with a New Orleans theme, he said, which is especially in Payne’s wheelhouse.
“Some of the things he’s done so far (are) mind blowing,” Herman said.
Payne said he’s aware that his role might have elevated Leftover Salmon a bit, but he’s not taking all the credit.
“The drumbeat out there around all the campfires, as I’ve heard it, ... is that this band is rejuvenated in part because of me, but also in part of this path we’re on together,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun just being able to react to good musicians on stage.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.