Greensky Bluegrass with Ryan Montbleau Band, Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR – 3/8
Photo by Jamie VanBuhler
Greensky Bluegrass rolled into town this past Saturday amid high expectations from a crowd of friendly Portlanders, gathered at the Wonder Ballroom and geared up to hear what Greensky had to offer. They weren’t disappointed: the five man band from Michigan ripped open a two-set, 21-song can of bluegrass whoopass that was one part string summit and five parts rock and roll show.
The proceedings started with Ryan Montbleau and his band, whose job it was to warm up the crowd (figuratively) and the room (literally), which was cold enough to refrigerate more than a few cases of beer. Montbleau got it done, sketching out a set of nine songs that melded the tongue-in-cheek philosophy of Paul Simon with the rhymes and rhythms of Fats Domino’s New Orleans, Humble Pie’s funky British blues and Marley’s Jamaica, with a little bluegrass twang for good measure.
“75 And Sunny,” Montbleau’s story of being young and getting old, was a highlight as were the reggae-infused “Songbird” and the Simon-esque sing-a-long “Chariot (I Know).” His cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” with the help of cellist Paul Wright and guitarist Tim Harrington (aka Tall Heights), was admirable as was the set’s closer, “You Crazy You.” After the songs themselves, it was guitarist Lyle Brewer who was the hands-down star of the show, a string slinger who can rip off a Frampton-esque solo (“Dead Set”) as easily as he can riff on rockabilly or reggae. If only he’d stepped into the light a little more.
With the arrival of Greensky Bluegrass shortly after 10PM, Montbleau’s set seemed relatively tame. The first three cuts — “Handguns,” “Little Maggie” and “Don’t Lie” — were stacked one on top of the other, a full-on 20 minute jam that featured more than one positively ferocious solo by dobro player Anders Beck. The woodsy quality of singer and mandolinist Paul Hoffman was given plenty of room on the first cover the night, a comfortable reading of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.”
“Lose My Way,” the great field hollerin’ “Working On A Building” and “Radio Blues” followed before the band took a turn at the Bill Withers classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” then closed the set with the propulsive, bass-driven “The King of the Hill.”
Highlights during the second set came both early and late, starting with a great version of The Band’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” followed by the freight train rumble of “Kerosene,” again highlighted by the incendiary dobro work of Beck. Their covers of “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “Money For Nothing” were cool but the set’s closer, “Wheelhoss,” was the best of the lot. With banjoist Mike Bont and guitarist Dave Bruzza leading the breakdown, it was just short of earth-shattering.
The only negative about the show was the mix: front and center from ten feet away sounded fine but, as you fell further back into the crowd, it became a massive wall of sound with little subtlety. With five guys who are such aggressively talented players, it’s not necessary to be loud to be rock and roll. In fact, it would have been cool to to hear a bit more nuance in the mix.
It hardly mattered to the crowd of dreadlock guys, late-era baby boomers and boys in baseball caps who were bouncing to every note start to finish. When all was said and done, it was a pretty amazing demonstration of musicianship and a damn good time to boot.