Drew Emmitt, a newgrass pioneer, comes to Kent Stage

Greg Schwartz

Drew Emmitt and one tiny guitar to play at the Kent Stage this weekend.

Credit: Greg Schwartz

Seminal “newgrass” jam band Leftover Salmon may be on an indefinite hiatus, but lead singer and mandolin player extraordinaire Drew Emmitt is staying busy.

Emmitt has a new solo album that follows up his highly acclaimed solo debut, 2002’s Freedom Ride, and he’s on tour with his Drew Emmitt Band, which plays the Kent Stage tomorrow night.

The band has more of a stripped-down, traditional bluegrass lineup than Leftover, featuring just mandolin, guitar, banjo and upright bass. But in an interview from the road earlier this week, Emmitt said the band will still play a set of around two hours. Emmitt said his musical mission remains the same, regardless of band instrumentation.

“I feel like music can heal people,” Emmitt said. “This is a crazy time in a lot of ways … Our mission is to sort of lift people’s spirits, add some substance.”

Many “jam band”-oriented musicians are focused on a party vibe, and Emmitt likes to have fun and jam out as much as the next person. But he’s also wondered if the jamband genre should pursue the substance issue further.

“Maybe we should be the voice of this generation instead of come on out and party,” he told www.jambands.com last year. “If anything I think that’s maybe what it needs to evolve into, a little more substance.”

Fans can definitely count on seeing a high level of musicianship. Emmitt’s virtuoso playing is at such a level that he attracted a veritable who’s who of bluegrass heavyweights to make guest appearances on Freedom Ride: Peter Rowan, Ronnie McCoury, Vassar Clements and Sam Bush all appear on the album. This would be the rock equivalent of having Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Carlos Santana guesting on an album.

For Emmitt, it was all a natural process.

“That’s the cool thing, it was all personal contacts,” said Emmitt. “I was really happy that all the schedules worked out.”

Like many improvisationally inclined musicians, Emmitt is fond of adding cover songs to the repertoire and guests on any given night whenever a good match can be found. Freedom Ride includes a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” that features a sizzling fiddle part. The soon-to-be-released new album will also feature covers of Dylan’s “Meet Me in the Morning” and Little Feat’s “All That You Dream.”

Leftover Salmon’s Web site makes a reference to Ohio’s famously left-wing Congressman Dennis Kucinich sitting in with the band once, but Emmitt says that isn’t quite accurate.

“He didn’t actually sit in, he came and talked at a gig we did up in Seattle last year,” Emmitt said. “But it was great; very interesting.”

Emmitt’s services as a guest are in demand. He’ll fly out to the Rockies next week to sit in on several shows with jam band stalwarts the String Cheese Incident, who like Leftover Salmon, hail from Colorado.

“I’ve known them for years,” said Emmitt, who has jammed with SCI band members on numerous occasions. “(Michael) Kang (SCI’s mandolin player) called me up and said they want me to come out and do some shows … We go way back with those guys. We had a little to do with influencing them, so it’s kind of nice the way it’s like a circle.”

Emmitt isn’t sure when Leftover Salmon will reconvene and plans to stay busy with his solo band, who will be playing late night sets on both nights of Ohio’s annual Hookaville Festival near Columbus on May 28 and 29.

Contact columnist Greg Schwartz at [email protected].