Hit ‘em over the head with: Greensky Bluegrass

Dec 29, 2010 by

Hit ‘em over the head with: Greensky Bluegrass

GSBG-250x166There are endless musical possibilities to ponder for your New Years plans. If bluegrass is high on the list, then think about some Greensky. No, I’m not talking about the use of psychedelics while listening to bluegrass music. I am talking about the band Greensky Bluegrass, the quintet that hails from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Where in the world is Kalamazoo you ask? Ok, so hold up your left hand with the palm facing away from you and point to the lower portion of your hand, pinky side. Right around there.  If you aren’t from the Midwest or are unfamiliar with how Michiganites (or  Wisconsinites for that matter) show where they are from, then none of that made any sense.  In such case, just skip over that last part and continue along.

Bluegrass is a genre where musical chops are hailed and scrutinized more than almost any other. And if you are looking for a set of downright badass pickers, look no further than Greensky Bluegrass. The band was formed in 2000 with Dave Bruzza playing guitar, Mike Bondt on banjo and Paul Hoffman, who at the time was just picking up the mandolin. The band acquired upright bassist Mike Devol, originally a classically trained cellist, in 2003 and began touring regularly. Greensky released its first album “Less Than Supper” in 2004 thrusting them more fully onto the road. Performing and subsequently winning the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Contest in summer of 2006 turned Greensky into full time road warriors. Shortly after, their sophomore album “Tuesday Letter” came out, produced by Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone. In November 2007 their first live CD “Live at Bells” was released, demonstrating that there was more to the band than colorful lyricism and great studio production. Recorded at Bells Brewery over a few shows, this album showed these boys could step out of their personal boundaries and Play! In January of 2008 the band completed its lineup by adding Anders Beck on Dobro and later released its 3rd studio album “Five Interstates” in August, again with the help of Mr. Carbone.

Since its inception, Greensky Bluegrass has toured nonstop promoting each album along the way, blazing a trail of bluegrass hotness and leaving a wake of devout fans as they go. Now coming to the end of 2010, GSBG has continued their hell for lather touring pace; released two more live albums, The All Access Volumes 1 and 2, and show no signs of slowing down.

If you find your self in front of Greensky Bluegrass on New Years Eve, or any other time for that matter, you will be inundated with a “Colorado” bluegrass sound. Greensky is a smash-mash of pickers that seem to feed off of each other during jams. I highly suggest – Track 7 on their All Access Vol. 1,”King of the Hill”. Turn the lights off or just close your eyes and listen to the repartee of Hoffman, Bondt, Bruzza, and Beck. They all seem to fight for the spotlight during songs and just end up shining brightly together. Cemented by Devol on his upright and vocally lead by guitarist Dave Bruzza its not surprising that, “People tend to assume that we are from Colorado all the time.”

In speaking with Anders Beck for this piece he alluded to just that point.

“It makes sense [people think we are from Colorado] because we fit into the same genre as Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band as opposed to traditional bluegrass or Nashville bluegrass.”

Indeed, you will find a bunch of mountain type folk kickin’ up some dust and getting down at every Greensky show. Whether in Denver or in the high country Greensky always seems to have a good audience and diversity at each show.

“Our following in Colorado has been really great over the past couple years whether we play one place or the other. If we are up in the mountains then some of the city kids come up and if we are in Denver some of the mountain kids come down so it’s a nice mix of people. The mountain crowds tend to be smaller, but there is the Mountain Party Vibe that comes along with that crowd. It’s like everyone is in the band and we seem to fit into that vibe.”

Maybe it’s their penchant for funky breakdowns during long jams. Maybe it’s their predilection for a certain Talking Heads song that translates so well into the bluegrass vein. (You had me at David Byrne) There is just something there that sways your mid-section left and right while you are sitting.

Or bounces your knee. Or just wiggles your left big toe.

It really is involuntary – I swear it.

Speaking of  David Byrne, Anders and I talked for awhile about the pros and cons of bands using covers during their show. Well, I suppose that I should say we talked about the pros of bands using covers during their shows. We are both adamant believers in the addition and use of other artists’ music as a sound board, no pun intended, and common ground for creating that connection between artist and viewer.

“We think there is a benefit to doing cover songs. Some places are like Denver where we sell out a 400 person venue and people want to hear our music. But when there is fifty people in a bar, in a place we have never been before we have to win them over and have the audience be able to relate to your music”, Anders said.

That is where a spark can be created and viewer becomes fan.

“Play something familiar to the crowd and have someone say ‘Hey I like this song.’ Find that common place to go to and they are much more willing to listen to your music. We lure them in with the Grateful Dead and then hit ‘em over the head with Greensky Bluegrass”

Being able to switch from Talking Heads to Pink Floyd to Grateful Dead to Prince also means having a larger selection of musical genre to draw from and integrate into their own unique style. This is what creates Greensky Bluegrass’ personal sound and texture. Creating that larger diversity in their repertoire has more than those singular benefits. Sometimes it opens doors and opportunities that would have been otherwise improbable. While in Michigan playing at Hoxeyville Music Festival; “Our hometown music festival”, notes Beck, the opportunity to pay homage that turned into a jam session of a lifetime. The Rhythm Devils were also headlining with Grateful Dead percussionists Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. The GSBG boys felt bold and asked Kreutzmann if he wanted to come up on stage and play a tune with them.

“By the time we knew it, both drum kits were built up behind us onstage and both Bill and Mickey came out and played “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider” with us.”

While I have other plans already set in motion to celebrate the New Year I will tell you I am going to be looking for the live recording of these two shows immediately upon returning home.

“We are music lovers too. We want to make sure live music gets out there”, Anders states. It is this desire that is the base to Greensky’s open taping policy. It was also this thought process that sparked the release of Greensky’s All Access albums.

“We understand that our live shows are different than our studio albums and really try to embrace that. The theory with the All Access discs, beyond us picking a show we liked and giving it to you, is that we are handing out a high quality recording. There are some great recordings of us out there but there are some really bad ones as well. We want to give people the option for that really great sound.”

All Access Vol. 1 was released in February of this year. It was recorded at the Riviera Theater in Three Rivers, Michigan in November of last year. Just out this November is All Access Vol. 2 recorded in July of this year at the Mexicali Blues in Teaneck, New Jersey. And there is another one on the way. The AA Volumes are going to be a long term series.

There is an older quote from Paul Hoffman in which he says, “During a concert there is more exploration of the ideas and it’s a true expression of what the five of us can do with the energy from the crowd. As a musician you surprise yourself live because you try new things and people are there to participate. You can only look forward. In the studio it’s like making music where all your ideas are fair game. There are few things I find more fun than making records. Every song gets it’s true voice. There is a connotation that there is no improvement to studio work. But it just exists in a different way. There is a timeless beauty in making albums…commitment to the music that’s greater. Albums are like a good marriage and live shows are like a great fling.”

So you can get the best of both worlds from Greensky’s live and studio album: the stability and the fun. Be on the lookout for more of that stability, GSBG is in the planning stages for a new studio release to be recorded and released sometime in 2011.

Along with Hoxeyville, GSBG toured, toured and toured in 2010 playing all over the festival circuits and beyond. Nateva Festival, All Good, Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival and Rockygrass were among the new stops on their almost 200 show year which will be culminating in Denver this year at Cervantes- The Other Side for a two show run on the 30th and the 31st. While traditionally GSBG has done their New Year Shows in Kalamazoo, they are excited to branch out this year and play in a state where they are so warmly welcomed. In addition, I should say as a bonus, GSBG will be supported by master songwriter/banjo player Danny Barnes.

“We are thrilled to have Danny playing with us in Denver.” Anders says.

He seems to be getting some extra attention with his new album “Pizza Box” and his joining Dave Matthews onstage a few times over the years showing everyone what GSBG has known all along. He is a uniquely gifted talent. Anders encourages everyone that will not be doing the countdown at Cervantes to stop over late night and join in on the Other Side fun.

Not to fear if you have to work or are already encumbered by your own New Year plans. Greensky Bluegrass will be back again, sooner rather than later.  Beck says they will be back to Colorado sometime in the spring. If that is not soon enough to satiate your thirst for some heel swinging bluegrass tunes then throw your money down for 2011’s Jam Cruise! This will be Greensky’s inaugural year on the boat. I know that here in the mountains there is a hardcore contingent of folks who save all year to board the famed boat and set to sea with some of music’s best and brightest. While this year’s stops include Roatan, Honduras and Costa Maya, Mexico, the main attraction is always the music on the boat. Along for the ride are artists Bob Weir, Galactic, The Greyboy Allstars, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk and many, many more. Asheville’s own Papadosio won the “Vote to the Boat” Contest securing them a spot playing on this year’s trip. While Greensky got on the easy way.

“They called and asked us to play”, said Anders.

It is every Greensky member’s first time on the boat and while I assured Anders that he will have a blast he tells me, “Everyone we know keeps telling us what an amazing time we are going to have. We are so excited”.

Excited for Jam Cruise? Well yeah!

Pay attention to Greensky Bluegrass, a hard driving, hard working, hard picking group of bluegrass players. They lure you in with something familiar and then pull the rug out from under you with something great. Join them to celebrate the New Year at Cervantes in Denver this year or join them when they return this spring. Either way they are worth spending an evening with and beyond.

Go out and get hit over the head with Greensky Bluegrass!

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