Blissful reverie with Greensky Bluegrass at Lake Tahoe
This night surely will go down in local history as one of the best nights ever in Crystal Bay Club’s Crown Room, driven by the lyrical sensibility and stringed wizardry of Greensky Bluegrass, and the deliciously satisfying show band delivered.
Greensky Bluegrass opened with a new version of an older song, “Old Barns,” to warm things up. Mandolin player Paul Hoffman’s deeply emotive voice immediately captured the crowd with its empathetic yearning and the plain sense appeal. Yet as the opening jam unfolded (and as satisfying as Hoffman’s virtuoso mandolin and voice are), we were instantly reminded that it’s the whole band that creates the magic in its sympathetic entrainment that expands the definition of bluegrass to something akin to rock ‘n’ roll.
Formed in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2000, this power pentangle consists of Anders Beck on dobro, Michael Arlen Bont on banjo, Dave Bruzza on guitar, Mike Devol on upright bass, and the iconic Hoffman on mandolin. On this, their second to last night of a fall tour promoting their sixth and newest studio album, “Shouted, Written Down & Quoted,” the place was packed, and pumped, and when Greensky hit the stage, the sold-out crowd burgeoned to fill every last inch of the room.
The band was stoked to be playing this small, intimate room after the mostly bigger venues they now grace; this was manna from heaven for the patrons, too, leaning on the rail up front in blissful reverie, or dancing outrageously in the (only slightly less crowded) spaces at the back of the hall. CBC is always great for an intimate show, but the crowd acted more like a packed show at an arena, so rowdy and animated and grateful to be there was every single person in the room. The band ate it up, and delivered in kind, with super high-speed picking and the intricate improvisational jams fans have come to expect from these crossover-genre favorites.
Next, the band launched into “Pig in a Pen,” the classic bluegrass tune performed by so many greats before them (Ricky Scaggs, Jerry Garcia and Peter Rowan), before moving into a song from its new album, “While Waiting,” and “Leap Year” from 2014’s LP, “If Sorrow Swims.” Each player in the Greensky ensemble stands out, picking up the lead or embedding the jam in tangled, rhythmic roots. Bont’s studied, quiet presence on banjo builds a steady, relentless groove, melodic and innovative. Devol, on stand-up bass, lends sweet vocal harmonies and a driving pace, while Beck shines on dobro, so smooth and melancholic, coaxing its high lonesome sound into searing harmonies and melodic leads.
Striking arrangements abound amid potent lyrics that reflect themes of movement and change, underscored by suggestion of the blisteringly fast-paced jams. Interspersing traditional bluegrass numbers with songs that showcased Hoffman the balladeer, with his urgent pleas and introspective lyrics, and guitarist Bruzza (another crooner), the band moved through a mix of new and older songs. (Bruzza’s steady, measured pacing and commanding voice expertly countered Hoffman’s tone.) The stage, often bathed in darkness, lent a mysterious ineffability to the jams that unfolded, like the slower, dark and moody “What Happened to Jim,” with its minor tones and striking, rhythmic chorus. As the players moved straight into another flawless, spitfire bluegrass jam, all one could do was grin and dance. When most bands would’ve quit for the night, this group of hard-core cosmonauts suggested we stick around for another set; the crowd, already ecstatic, practically levitated.
Greensky opened its second set with another soulful ballad from the new album, “Miss September,” before shifting gears and moving into late, late night mode. Another bluegrass number, played ultra fast, launched into psychedelic zones, and then unbelievably, the band was playing the opening chords of Pink Floyd’s classic, “Time,” from “Dark Side of the Moon,” clicking its way through perennial lyrics into the reprise of “Breathe” and its iconic message. An intimate yet far-reaching jam unfolded, like a watching a night sky full of meteor showers, with an improvised orchestration that belied the mere five instruments at play. That already ecstatic crowd? Over said moon.
A couple more songs from the new album, more stellar jams, and then dobro and banjo players Dunnigan and Cornette from The Lil’ Smokies joined the Greensky boys on stage for a real jamboree. The jam thickened, bubbling and boiling with interlocking banjos and psychedelic strains of Garcia in Hoffman’s and Dunnigan’s studied craftsmanship, belting out the tune “Who Is Frederico,” followed by “Reuben’s Train.” More bluegrass mastery, more mysterious melding of rock ‘n’ roll with classic Americana roots music, and the final song of the set, “Don’t Lie,” to wrap up a perfect evening of soulful ballads, inspirational picking, and live music at its best.
Then, Greensky came back for a hearty encore, capping that already perfect night off with the Garcia-Hunter favorite, “Eyes of the World:” the soaring melody, heartfelt lyrics, and Greensky’s sublime command of the Dead’s ethos unleashed one final dose of musical reverie into the Crown Room, helping Tahoe start off our winter right. I’ve heard it said that “Greensky is Life,” and after last night’s epic show at the CBC, it’s easy to sing that resurrecting adage.
Starting the show with Lil’ Smokies
The Lil’ Smokies, hailing from Missoula, Montana, opened the show with its usual verve and exceptional stringed vitality. The band featurs Andy Dunnigan on dobro, Scott Parker on upright bass, Matt Cornette on banjo, Jake Simpson on fiddle, and Matt Rieger on guitar. The audience clearly remembered The Lil’ Smokies from the 2016 Winter Wondergrass Squaw Valley. Dunnigan, who must be the descendant of an ancient line of Irish bards, played and sang like an angel on fire with a voice of passion and purpose. Incendiary, lightning fast licks, chords and changes, soulful duets, and immersion in their multilogue of instrumentation, the band’s sizzling delivery was a like a sultry, tender embrace. With both rocking and traditional bluegrass tunes, the players sailed through a tight set where beautiful voices, intelligent jams and strong harmonies won the hearts of the Tahoe crowd in an effortless draw – a testament to the power these five, five-star gentleman bring to the stage.
Related story: Michael Arlen Bont talks about new album: LINK
To see all of Larry Sabo’s photos from the show, please click the LINK.
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