There are inevitable pratfalls on a nine-week tour, and when we called Greensky Bluegrass Sunday we woke up its bass player, who was laying on his back in his bunk of a broken down bus stalled on the side of a highway in southern Oregon.
The five-piece group was en route to Crystal Bay Casino, where it has played several times, first as the Red Room after-party band following Yonder Mountain String Band. It has gained popularity through relentless touring and an acclaimed fourth studio album, “Handgun,” released in 2011. On Thursday Greensky Bluegrass headlines a Crown Room doubleheader with the Portland, Ore., band Fruition.
“We just like to really play blackjack, it’s an awesome excuse to play a state of the art room,” Mike Devol yawned into his cell phone. “We provide that excuse for some people too. We see a lot of our fans from the Bay Area.”
The quintet from Kalamazoo, Mich., lives on bluegrass’ fringe, often covering rock ’n’ roll songs with traditional instrumentation: banjo, dobro, mandolin, upright bass and guitar.
“While adding a drummer would free each of us up to do more things instrumentally,” Devol said, “I think it would take away from the charm of our sound because of the way we have to build those rhythmic textures with our instruments while we are also singing harmonies. You can’t mimic it with drums. It provides certain challenges in arranging certain pieces. For a bluegrass band who plays rock and rock covers, it adds a whole other level of preparation and performance.”
When Devol left Akron, Ohio to attend Western Michigan, he intended to get a four-year degree, then pursue graduate work in classical cello.
“Kalamazoo is the land of plenty if what you are looking for is beer,” Devol said. “It changed me and made me the touring bluegrass bassist that I’ve become. A lot of times you think if you move to New York, LA, Nashville or Boulder you’re going to make it. But in a lot of ways I think being the band form Kalamazoo was a strength for us. We’re Kalamazoo’s band. We’re not there playing the Brewery every two weeks anymore but we’re not one of those 300 bands from Nashville or 3,000 from LA.”
The timing was good for an aspiring bluegrass band. The 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou” brought attention to European-America’s oldest form of music.
“To many, banjo means bluegrass, which isn’t necessarily true if you want to be a traditionalist about it,” Devol said. “Bands like the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers who are wildly popular right now and play acoustic instruments who have this Americana sound, that’s great for all of us who play bluegrass or are on the fringe.”
Devol and Dave Bruzza have moved from Kalamazoo. Devol lives in the Bay Area and Bruzza is in Denver. Guitarist Bruzza plays Cribbage, but not as well as does Devol, the bassist insisted we include. Michael Arlen Bont is on banjo and Paul Hoffman the mandolin.
Greensky Bluegrass’ fifth studio album is expected to be released in February.
When: 9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room
Tickets: $17 in advance or $20 at the door