Greensky Bluegrass – Living The American Dream
Headliners Music Hall, Louisville, Kentucky 1-21-2014
with special guests The Tumbleweed Wanderers
Words and pictures by Rex Thomson
As the temperatures dropped below freezing, Headliners Music Hall in Louisville, Kentucky was in danger of burning down from the fire lit by the incendiary music of Greensky Bluegrass on a frigid Tuesday night. With a majority of the band hailing from Michigan, the band knows all about cold and have been hardened against the bitter winds by years of facing the elements. This toughness of spirit they developed has served them well as a traveling band, and over the last few years their talents and relentless drive has earned them an ever growing fan base and a chance to live the American dream.
Our country was founded on a set of principals, one of the most important being that given the freedom to pursue their own course, and that with a lot of hard work and a little luck anything was possible. The path to success in the music industry is a long and hard one, filled with endless hours of practice, touring and ignoring illness and exhaustion to bring their most to every stage stepped upon. Even if you’re willing to put in the effort, there’s no guarantee you’ll succeed…it’s a magical blend of skill, luck and timing that makes or breaks bands as they pursue their goal. Greensky Bluegrass has learned these lessons well, going from five friends in a van playing tiny bars to their current tour, with a four man crew and a full compliment of lights and audio gear. With the knowledge that their production is in good hands, the band can focus on what is truly important…making the music that means so much to them.
Another benefit to stepping up in stature is the ability to share their tours with new bands, and help those acts in their quests to climb the ladder as well. In The Tumbleweed Wanderers Greensky found an opening band with a fire that is reminiscent of their own, a blast of rock fused Americana that is passionate and heartfelt. Hailing from Oakland, California, the Wanderers feature a pair of guitarist/vocalists, a tight rhythm section and a keyboardist, blending harmony vocals, effortless transitions from high energy walls of sound and hushed expansive soundscapes. From their roots playing acoustic shows on the streets for loose change and the need to be heard to the release of their first CD and choice spots with national touring acts like Greensky, their future is sunny indeed.
As the Wanderers finished their set, the members of Greensky who had been watching their opening band’s show from the crowd made their way backstage and got their game faces on. Going on without a written setlist, the band was loose and confident, a product of their thousands of hours of playing together and the near telepathic connection that has resulted. With the smiles and laughs exchanged as they plugged in and checked their tunings one last time showing just how much they enjoy their job, Greensky launched into their set ferociously. Banjo Mike showed why he was given his nick name, fingers flying up and down the five stringed fret board, setting the pace for the first couple of tracks. Guitarist Dave Bruzza brought his trademark gruff growl of a voice to a few tunes, and went back and forth between furiously strummed chords and intricate leads, eyes squeezed shut in total focus. The band even took requests, and when crowd favorite “All Four” was shouted from the crowd, Anders beck grinned and said “Okay” as they smoothly launched into the song, an ode to perseverance that featured an extended jam that saw every player take the lead. The instrumental portion of the tune boiled red hot til reaching a crescendo…then slowly settled back into the main portion of the song, as the lead melody was hauntingly whispered til the band reignited and finished leaving fans screaming themselves hoarse in amazed recognition. This early moment set the tone for the show, as each song seemed to be an oasis, and each break between having the audience screaming song title after song title. It became something of a joke, as the Anders Beck even took a moment to argue with a crowd member about the validity of a David Bowie tune.
Mike Devol’s hybrid stand up bass’s tone was dialed in and provided the essential bottom end that all bluegrass bands need. Devol lent his voice to harmonies, but for the most part he laid a thumping beat that reverberated in the chests of everyone in the audience. After a solid hour plus, the band took a short set break to refuel and catch their breath. In the case of mandolinist Paul Hoffman, it was a much needed respite. Hoffman embraces every show as if it will be his last, mixing breakneck runs on his instrument so intricate that he has to stare off into the distance, eyes unfocused as he picks with amazing dexterity and precision. He compliments this with one of the most expressive voices to ever grace the stage, able to go from joyous good humor to heart breaking melancholy in an instant. Playing songs from throughout their career, from “Handguns” to songs written for the upcoming new CD like “Demons,” Hoffman Had the crowd spell bound.
The most noticeable thing about Greensky Bluegrass is their control, their ability to play at a variety of speed without any missteps, every note in exactly the place intended, and no one exemplifies this more than Anders Beck. Playing the drop steel guitar, Beck avoids the loose, sloppy style that many players adopt with the slide and favors razor sharp stops and starts to his runs…swelling into and out of his lines like a one man orchestra. His fills and flourishes act as the secret ingredient, the cherry on top of a rock solid band and help elevate Greensky’s beyond the traditional and beyond bluegrass itself. The band frequently takes intense, dark psychedelic turns, using pedals and effects that most traditional bands would never consider. Musically they are equally at home covering Pink Floyd as they would be covering Bill Monroe, and as such their shows are unpredictable and always a far flung blend of picking and grinning and swirling madness. As they left the stage following an exhaustion inducing performance, the crowd begged for the bands inevitable encore. A trans-formative rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark” saw Hoffman take a straight rock song and infuse it with a passion and mournfulness that made lines like “I wanna change my hair…my clothes…my face!” take on a morose sense of confinement that elevated the song from sing-a-long to a primal begging for release.
The night ended, as all good things must, with the band and the crowd wishing for the show never end. Signing posters and chatting with fans, the members of Greensky Bluegrass showed that though they are climbing the ladder of success, they are not leaving behind their love and connection with the fans who are flocking to their flag. This humility, this love and passion shows how they’ve managed to get this far, and makes it obvious that the sky itself might not be the limit for how far this band can go.