- Greensky Bluegrass
- All Access Vol. 2
It’s been over four years and six hundred shows since Greensky Bluegrass (GSBG) won the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition. Showing all of the promise of an up and coming bluegrass band, GSBG has set out to conquer the music world, one show/festival/late night jam/CNN appearance at a time. Averaging over 170 shows a years, selling out many of the venues, the (mostly) Michiganders have become the poster children for hard work in the music world.
Greensky Bluegrass is Anders Beck (dobro), Michael Arlen Bont (banjo), Dave Bruzza (guitar), Mike Devol (upright bass) and Paul Hoffman (mandolin). While Hoffman has taken to the roll of main songwriter, one of their main attributes has been the song variety of their festival sets or headlining shows. GSBG has officially released three studio albums and has just released their third official live recording, All Access, Vol.2, recorded in Teaneck, New Jersey on July 30, 2010.
The latest release from their All Access series highlights the band’s growth from “that good bluegrass band I happened to see at a festival” to world-class musicians pushing the boundaries of different musical genres. Upon first glance at the well-rounded setlist, I was excited with the range of music contained in the two sets.
Show opener, “Old Barns” has been a favorite Hoffman original of mine since I first heard it at Northwest String Summit. Showcasing the rural American values of family and tradition, Hoffman is able to highlight personal growth without stepping on the toes of his ancestors. Moving through a couple of bluegrass and country tunes, “Climbing Up a Mountain” by Tim O’Brien, and a couple of originals, “Through the Trees” and Blood Sucking F®iends, GSBG seems to lay out its country/bluegrass roots before stretching “Freeborn Man” into a 21 minute crowd-pleasing jam featuring Andy Goessling (Railroad Earth) on saxophone, and finally slowing into another original, “Bottle Dry”. The M. Bont original, “Running the Briars” brings the boys back to a traditional bluegrass sound, highlighting each of the instruments with lightning solos and well-rehearsed timing. The set comes to a close with some family banter and “Gumboots”. The ability to effectively cover your heroes’ work has become a pre-requisite for any band. GSBG’s take on this Paul Simon tune showcases their mastery of arrangement alongside an ability to make something their own.
Set 2 (CD 2) opens with another soon-to-be Hoffman classic, “Grow Bananas”. The ability to write telling lyrics such as, “Some people run away from democracy… to be more free” is a culmination of Paul Hoffman’s commitment to the craft of songwriting. The Anders Beck dobro song, “Roberta” serves as a reminder to the importance of adding the former Wayward Son to lineup. The stirring tale, “Last Winter in Copper Country” leads to the traditional “Jesus on the Mainline”. “I’d Probably Kill You” is a new tune from Hoffman that leads into the Burle Galloway song, “How Far I’d Fall For You.”
The second set lights up with a 13 minute “Doin’ My Time” jam. GSBG’s take on this old-school bluegrass tune written by James Skinner and popularized by Flatt & Scruggs is a prime example of their ability to float between the bluegrass and jam-band communities. That little slice of music is the result of five musicians reaching the pinnacle of their craft by honing their skills and exploring their boundaries all the while keeping their ears open to the sounds of their brothers. As they pick up the tempo and tear into the Bruzza original, “Radio Blues,” it’s not hard to imagine the foot-stompin’ approval of the crowd.
The title track of GSBG’s second studio release, “Tuesday Letter” brings the band back to their roots. GSBG music may have one foot firmly rooted in the world of bluegrass and one tapping in the jam-band scene, but their songs all share a consistent quality; storytelling.
Speaking of jambands, Dave Bruzza starts the familiar opening to “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider” much to the crowd’s delight. A sure (and easy) way to get the crowd on your side is to launch into a Grateful Dead classic. Believe me, I am the type of righteous writer who would have no problem shredding a band for taking a lackluster approach to a Dead tune, but GSBG gave me no cause in their set closer. Encoring the way the show began, with a Hoffman original, “No Idea” and a traditional bluegrass number, “Shuckin’ the Corn”, GSBG brings the night to a close.
After listening to All Access Vol. 2 by Greensky Bluegrass, I must admit I was excited with the maturity and growth they have shown. In the short decade or so they have been together, including only a couple of years with this current lineup, their rate of improvement has begun to win over even the most weary of writers. I’m impressed with the quality of musicianship of the band, the storytelling of the songwriters, and the variety of songs, all with a distinctive Greensky Bluegrass take. But, in searching for the greatest compliment I could convey to this hard-working band, only one kept coming back to me. I wish I was at that show!