Greensky Bluegrass: No Rules (and Kazoos)
You mentioned a whole list of players that inspired you, but you guys have had the opportunity to play with some legends too—I saw you guys played with both of the drummers from the Grateful Dead. Who have been some of your favorite guests to play with on stage?
PH: We just had Sam Bush up at Telluride—that was pretty awesome and humbling. Like I said, when I started playing the mandolin he was a great inspiration for me. I went and saw him really early on and met him and got his autograph and did that whole fan thing, and now I’ve played with him. That was really awesome. Definitely having Kreutzmann up on drums from The Dead was a really cool thing. Those are the more shocking musical collaborations based on those peoples’ status. Being big fans of them and then having them join our stage is a really big pat on the back, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment. We’ve done some other great musical collaboration too, one of my favorites is Andy Goessling from Railroad Earth sitting in on saxophone—that’s really fun and sounds cool. He’s real familiar with the music because we play with them so much. I think musically that’s been some of the coolest stuff. One of the songs on our All Access Vol. 2 features him playing tenor sax. It just sounds cool.
AB: To date, having Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart both play with us is my favorite. It was, like… I don’t know. I still have a hard time describing it. It was like the coolest possible thing that I can think of happening. To have those guys come up and play on the Greensky Bluegrass stage and feel the power of those two guys playing drums together behind us, it was pretty amazing and absurdly inspiring. For someone who has grown up listening to the Grateful Dead and seen them many times, all of a sudden hearing the way those two guys play—we played “China Rider” with them, and I remember at one point looking back and thinking to myself “Oh I’ve got to tell them…this is where I would have to cue people that the changes are coming” and then I just had to laugh at myself because, not only did they know exactly when they were coming, but they drove our band right into everything perfectly. Other than that having Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman from Leftover Salmon play with us is always an honor, and Nershi from String Cheese—the more bluegrass guys. It always feels really good just because they’re the forefathers of our version of bluegrass music, so it’s always cool just to sit around with them and play tunes and have them come play onstage with us. Not to say that there’s any sort of “passing of the torch” kind of thing or anything, but it’s really encouraging to have them get excited about what we’re doing. Ronnie McCoury is another one that comes to mind, he’s played with us a couple of times recently.
PH: The guest thing can go either way, I think if you ask a lot of bands they have mixed emotions about it. You think “Oh this song would be really cool with horn on it” so you get a horn player up, but it creates complications. I think the easiest way to explain it is that the five of us play 175 shows a year and spend 220 days a year together, so what we’re able to do musically sort of transcends music and goes to the way that we can communicate with each other nonverbally, with just a look, or we can read each other’s body language. I can tell by the melody that one of my other bandmates is creating where he’s going to go with it, and you throw a guest into that situation and they can either inhibit that or they can introduce new things to it, or new flavors and new energy. We try not to have a guest just for the sake of having a guest. We try to make it cool—to make sure that the guest serves the song well.
Is there anyone else you’re dying to play with?
AB: Oh man, yeah… I think that any of the Phish guys would be, just sort of on a personal level, really cool. We’ve had some people sit in on electric guitar and it’s turned out really cool—like Steve Kimock played with us on Jam Cruise once and it’s really interesting how that actually fits in pretty well to what we’re doing. Greensky Bluegrass has a pretty psychedelic side separate from the bluegrass side of the band, so when we get into that space it’s really cool to hear electric guitars or pianos over the pillow that we create musically. Off the top of my head it’s hard to say exactly who, because when you say who then it’s on paper, and the sit-in—at least in my mind—is a really organic thing, you know, you’re backstage at a festival or a gig and someone shows up, it’s more along the line of “Hey, want to come play with us? It’d be really cool” then “Oh, hell yeah, sounds fun.” The second you start putting it on paper it becomes something different I think.
PH: There’s a lot of stuff that we still talk about doing. We’ve got horns on the most recent studio album, it would be cool to do that song with the horns more often. It might be cool to play with a horn section for a whole show or something. Sometimes we talk about playing a set with a drummer, but as a mandolin player that makes my job boring because the snare drum takes over for me. I think a piano would be really cool, just for something different.
Your band is known for covering a massive range of songs from other genres, what do you guys look for in a song that makes you want to add it to your live set?
AB: It’s always a pretty interesting process, because there are two ways we do it. We’ll take a song and we’ll bluegrass it—like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” we learned that the day that he died as a tribute and we tried to play it true to form, you know, exactly like it is on the record. Then we realized that, rather than do it that way, it would be cooler if we just bluegrass it, and then all of a sudden we’ve got this fast thing that turned out to be really cool. It was supposed to be a one-time-only thing and now we still play it every 5-10 shows. And then the other side of it is songs that we actually play true to their form. It good to do that mostly with the Grateful Dead songs, like “China” > “Rider” or something like that, we’ll play it exactly like they played it. Or we do our best to do so. The thing with covers is that sometimes we’ll pick a cover and we’ll think it’s going to be really cool, and it just doesn’t work—it’s just not that cool. The ones that stick around are the ones that have evolved—they’re a bit more exciting. We really just pick them based on things that would be fun to play and sing and if we think they would work in Greensky Bluegrass.
PH: A lot of times the rhythm of a tune just sounds like it will lend really well to our instrumentation, depending on what the drum beat is or something. A lot of times I want to play songs that are just fun to sing, and sometime that doesn’t work out very well. Not everything translates without the drums and without synthesizers, depending on what we’re trying to do. Also, a lot of the covers we do that get less recognition, but are important to us, are tunes we try to pick up from people we know, just too expand our repertoire and bring our friends’ songs to more listeners. We don’t necessary consider those as much of a “cover,” because when people say “cover” they mean us playing “Beat It” by Michael Jackson. It’s a nice way to challenge ourselves as well. I think I’m a pretty good songwriter, and I write at a pretty good pace, but I certainly know a lot of other writers who write a lot faster than I do. There’s no reason to not be learning songs just because there’s not a new one that we wrote to learn, so a lot of times we’ll learn songs and then we won’t even really play them. Or we’ll play them once and be like “ehh, that’s not super cool.” Then there’s other things like, I remember the day that we were still an open mic band and I suggested we play “When Doves Cry” because I thought that the backbeat would be really good for bluegrass, and here we are, eleven years later, still playing it. It must have worked, because we can’t get away from it. It’s fun to play.
For you, what are the most fun covers to play?
PH: Lately we’ve been playing “Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen, sort of a knockoff on The Band’s version of it, and I really dig playing that song. It’s a lot different than anything we play; it’s sort of like a power anthem. It’s a little slower, less charging than a lot of the bluegrass we play. I’m always impressed by the power that the song has over the audience, people really get into it. I hear from a lot of our fans that they really like when we play it, and I think to myself “good, because I like playing it.”
AB: My favorite is still “King of the Hill,” the Bruce Hornsby tune. It’s become quite a jam vehicle for the band, but it always comes back to the Hornsby lick and the verses and stuff. I love the song first of all, and I love what it’s become within the Greensky Bluegrass show. I’ve really been loving playing “Atlantic City,” which we just started. We first played that on Halloween this last year. It’s, you know, the Bruce Springsteen tune that The Band covered, and it’s taken on more weight since Levon Helm died for us. There are literally times when we’ve been playing it on stage and it almost chokes me up. It a heavy tune that’s now heavier since I associate it with Levon Helm since his death. And that’s a song that really has no jamming in it, and it’s just the opposite end where I just love playing that song because it’s such a damn good song. So those are probably my two top favorites at the moment. But ask me again in ten minutes and I might come up with something else.