Fresh cut: Greensky Bluegrass sets the standard again

Fast-rising Musical Michiganders Greensky Bluegrass breaks out “Stress Dreams” on Jan. 21.
Photo by Dylan Langille

Who hasn’t had a few quaking sleeps these past two years? Simply thinking of the name Greensky Bluegrass should be a way to ease them. By the glistening, wood and steel-fired magic throughout “Stress Dreams,” the Michigan-bred quintet helps assess, and ultimately dissolve them.

Paul Hoffman on mandolin, Anders Beck on dobro, Michael Arlen Bont on banjo, Dave Bruzza on guitar and Mike Devol on standup bass, prove themselves dazzling instrumentalists, captivating singers, and penetrating, charming songwriters throughout their first new studio set in three years. Written and recorded during the lockdown, the careful time spent on the songs beams in consistent, meaningful artistry. Each contains a defined beginning, midsection and finale. One after the other, they flow as a movement. Despite its complexity and potency, this bright music settles in easily, soothes and stays.       

Hoffman sings: “Because I want to do right more than anything I do” with conviction, and perhaps a little contrition, during the chorus of “Absence of Reason.” Wrapped in lyrical and rhythmic poetry pierced with deeply set hooks, that intimate and virtuous thought couldn’t make for a more universally attractive album opener. “Monument” then kicks things up a notch, its music flirting with tradition until halfway through, when it isn’t. Suddenly, and very naturally, it evolves into an intense, melodic jam worthy of the Allman Brothers. “Stress Dreams” begins as if waking up, shaking off thoughts still swirling. Riding on a stately melody featuring gorgeous piano and urgent pulls of mandolin and banjo, it takes its turn into forward-thinking territory and goes long. Essences of orchestral progressive rock, and even George Harrison for a moment, float through it.

“Give a Shit” lightens the mood considerably, the chicken pickin’ hipster rowdiness of it displaying uncommon depth for a tune of its kind (If ever there was an album made in tribute to Danny Barnes and the Bad Livers, this song should be on it). Using the green, yellow and red lights of a “Streetlight” as a metaphor for descending romantic feelings, Greensky conveys, and plays the blues, mountain style. “New & Improved” shines like a brand-new penny, whereas the opening to “Screams” screams Pink Floyd, Hoffman conveying pain with particularly sharp, pronounced tones.  

Greensky announced the release of “Stress Dreams” the day following three sold-out nights at Red Rocks Amphitheatre last September, an unprecedented accomplishment for a band of new-grassers. Progressive bluegrass has continually evolved ever since the recently departed J.D. Crowe and his New South started its ball rolling five decades ago. But among those in the last two decades or so that have incorporated rock, jam, etc. into the music, Greensky Bluegrass have been setting standards. This stunning album displays one set of reasons why their fanbase grows exponentially.

-Tom Clarke

  • Greensky Bluegrass
  • ‘Stress Dreams’
  • Label: Thirty Tigers
  • Release: Jan. 21, 2022

ABOUT Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke
From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 25 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, Los Lobos, and the Allman Brothers Band and its ever-growing family tree. Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Kudzoo, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage. Tom and his wife Karen have raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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