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As the Fox Theatre marks its 20th anniversary, Boulder’s most celebrated fish come to deposit some roe

Succumbing to a sudden fit of retro-surfing nostalgia, we recently spun Leftover Salmon’s seminal Ask The Fish for a fresh listen. A riot of colliding strings and goofball interludes and marksman-like musicianship, the band’s first live CD, recorded at the Fox in October 1994, marks a fitting left-side bookend to the jamgrass franchise’s career ascendency and a fitting vignette of the party-yer-parts-off madness that Salmon would shortly take national.

Mando/guitarist/co-founder Drew Emmitt remembered the gig when we caught up with him last week, just back from an Emmitt-Nershi tour and slumming it with Salmon on Little Feat’s annual Jamaica Excursion.

“Oh yeah,” he chuckles, “that was recorded on Halloween, and we were all in costume. I was wearing this very cumbersome wizard costume with these huge sleeves. So not only were we recording a live record, but were also hindered by the costume element. Plus it was an absolutely crazy night. So it was kind of a nutty way to make a live record — picking one of the craziest gigs ever and recording it.

“And I think some of that craziness still exists in the band, but it’s sort of tempered now by more focusing on the music, not just so much being the most crazy, weird band we could possibly be. Which is kind of where we were back then.”

When Salmon climbs the stage Tuesday night for the first time at the Fox since their bye-for-now New Year’s Eve 2004 gig, and unofficially for their 64th appearance up there (and yes, we think that’s the venue’s single band marquee record), they’ll be returning re-inspired and reinvigorated. A new CD of all original material (working title, Aquatic Hitchhiker) is in the can and poised for a spring release. It was recorded in Portland last month and produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, and two or three tours of 50 or 60 gigs total extend the band’s schedule through 2012.

“It’s really a very different record for us,” says Emmitt, “in that we really all got together and helped each other write the songs. It wasn’t like we each had songs and brought them to the table and that was it. We all collaborated on it. And Steve really helped too, he came out early and we had a session at Vince’s where we got together and wrote, and he had some really great input. … It’s really the first time we really collaborated on a record as a band.

“But we’re psyched. It’s bluegrassy, almost a little folksy in a way. A little bit of rock, some Cajun, some calypso in the true Salmon tradition. But … it’s kind of hard to describe. Very roots and very earthy.”

Salmon has been pointing toward this moment for a couple of years now, picking up more tour dates the last couple of years after unofficially and sporadically resuming business in 2007. Talk to just about anyone with history in this organization, and they’ll all point to the full-time addition of banjoist Andy Thorn as the spark that lifted the band from part-time, extended reunion status to Fish 2.0.

Thorn filled in to handle some Salmon dates a couple of years ago, and it was pretty obvious to everyone by early last year that the late Mark Vann’s banjo seat was filled.

“Big time, definitely,” Emmitt says. “He saw us in Chapel Hill at the Cat’s Cradle years ago when he was 14, his mom brought him, and he said that gig changed his life, made him really want to do this. And y’know, Mark was really a big influence on him.

“And he plays a lot like Mark. He’s a great bluegrass banjo player, he plays in the Emmitt-Nershi band as well, just rips on the banjo. But he can also rock out on the banjo, and that’s been a tough thing. That’s something that the other banjo players that came after Mark, as great as they were, weren’t really able to capture. And that’s what Leftover Salmon requires. It’s a rock ’n’ roll bluegrass band. Equal parts. And he’s definitely got both those worlds.”

As for the Fox, Emmitt expressed a little shock when we told him how many Fox gigs are on the band’s résumé. But he couldn’t deny the role that the band and the venue each had in helping the other grow up.

“It was kind of our standing monthly gig for a while,” he says. “Before we started touring, we played the Fox, we played the ski areas, Fort Collins. But yeah, that was our mainstay, that’s where we first learned we could really blow up some shows and make it happen.

“And it kind of set the template for our touring, too. We figured, hey if we can do shows like the Fox around the country, then we’ll be doing good.”

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