It’s not hard for Leftover Salmon banjo player Andy Thorn to understand the affinity between the Bend and Boulder music scenes.
In fact, it’s the same thing that brought him to the Colorado city for the first time, in the early 2000s: mountains.
“I think our music is inspired by mountains and high country life and all those kinds of things,” Thorn said recently from a tour stop in La Crosse, Wisconsin. “So, of course, people that enjoy those things will probably like our music. But other people, too — it’s not just about that — but I think that’s where the band has drawn a lot of their inspiration from.”
Bend has wholeheartedly embraced (to put it mildly) the jamgrass scene that sprung up in Colorado largely thanks to Leftover Salmon, which since 1989 has mixed Zydeco, rock, country, folk and yes, bluegrass in a hybrid sound that won over jam-band fans in the ’90s.
Bands such as Old Salt Union, Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters, The Lil Smokies — all of which owe something to Leftover Salmon’s pioneering mix of genres — have visited Bend multiple times over the years.
Leftover Salmon is also a frequent visitor, having last played Bend in 2017 (before that, the group’s most recent appearance was 2014). The sextet, featuring Thorn, longtime songwriters and co-frontmen Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt, bassist Greg Garrison, drummer Alwyn Robinson and keyboardist Erik Deutsch, will return to play Oregon Spirit Distillers on Thursday.
The performance comes in the midst of the group’s 30th-anniversary celebration. Its first new studio album in four years, “Something Higher,” dropped last year, preceding February’s biography written by Tim Newby, “Leftover Salmon: 30 Years of Festival!” The book offers a meticulous history of the band, from its formation out of the ashes of Salmon Heads and the Left Hand String Band, to the death of banjo player Mark Vann in 2002 and the band’s subsequent hiatus and regrouping.
The book’s chapters take their titles from band members past and present, starting naturally with Emmitt and Herman.
Thorn’s history with the band began some years before he officially joined in 2011. He grew up in North Carolina, where he picked up banjo at a young age. By the time he was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he had joined local bluegrass collective Big Fat Gap. But his goal was to end up out West, he said.
“Some other friends had won the RockyGrass (Festival) band contest — my friends The Steep Canyon Rangers,” Thorn said. “So I knew that that was a cool thing to do to jump-start trying to go out West from North Carolina. I always wanted to do that; I was always wanting to go ski and wanting to be in the bigger mountains and all that stuff. So when I heard about (Steep Canyon Rangers) doing that, I followed in their footsteps, and I found a band out there.”
That band was the now-legendary Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band, which featured a veritable who’s who of the modern jamgrass scene, including Greensky Bluegrass’ Anders Beck, Jon Stickley of the Jon Stickley Trio and The Infamous Stringdusters’ Travis Book. (The band, active from 2003 to 2005, reunited for this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and Thorn brought together some of these musicians, plus other friends from Big Fat Gap, on his recent solo album, “Frontiers Like These.”)
As detailed in “30 Years of Festival!,” Broke Mountain had been together a scant two months when it took home the top prize at RockyGrass. From there, Thorn would go on to tour with bluegrass musician Larry Keel for a time.
Eventually Chris Pandolfi, banjoist for The Infamous Stringdusters, suggested Thorn as his replacement in the Emmitt-Nershi Band, the project Emmitt formed with Bill Nershi of The String Cheese Incident during Leftover Salmon’s hiatus from 2005 to 2007. Thorn, a fan of Leftover Salmon since high school, immediately connected with Emmitt.
“I felt like I had known (Emmitt) for my whole life, because I had — I had been watching them a long time,” Thorn said. “And it was just really natural. We like to do the same things — we like to go hiking and ski. So right away, I was thrown into this awesome Colorado band where I got to do all the amazing things I wanted to do.”
When Leftover Salmon sought a full-time career again in the 2010s, Thorn was a natural to fill the banjo spot once occupied by Vann. Emmitt and Herman call Thorn the missing piece of the puzzle in “30 Years of Festival!,” with Herman quoted as saying, “Andy was definitely the key to wanting to get after it again.”
“It’s crazy to me they had trouble finding a banjo player that could fit in with their crew,” Thorn said. “That was just surprising to me. I think there’s more (banjo players) around now, but it’s just lucky that it worked out like that.”
Since Thorn joined, the group released three studio albums produced by Los Lobos keyboardist and saxophonist Steve Berlin, including “Something Higher.” The album features some new sonic wrinkles for Leftover Salmon, including the soul- and R&B-inflected “Show Me Something Higher” and “House of Cards,” Herman’s response to the tumultuous political and social upheaval of the last few years.
“Vince has always been extremely political,” Thorn said. “I don’t know if people know that about him, but he’s really well-educated and extremely political and well-spoken and knowledgeable about these issues, so he’s not just spewing it out. But he’s always been like that, and this song has been so powerful lately. He just feels it through his whole body like he’s channeling something when he sings this song. He puts his guitar down and he just preaches, and it’s so awesome when it’s the right crowd that is feeling it.”