Review: Greensky Bluegrass well-oiled on road to Hangtown

Tahoe Onstage

Greensky Bluegrass plays for a sold-out Crystal Bay Casino on Friday, Sept. 8.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Clare Foster

Greensky Bluegrass’ sold out show Friday night at the Crystal Bay Casino was a showcase of a well-oiled musical machine doing what it does best.

Greensky is no stranger to the Sierra Nevada. The Kalamazoo musicians have found a welcoming outpost in the area since they started crossing through the range on their West Coast jaunts a decade ago. The band  bookends its fall tour this year in the Sierra, with Friday’s show being the first and its last being at Placerville’s Hangtown Music Festival. As the adage goes, save the best for first and last.

To be fair, though, it’s not like Anders Beck (dobro), Michael Arlen Bont (banjo), Dave Bruzza (guitar), Mike Devol (upright bass) and Paul Hoffman (mandolin) are really strangers anywhere in the United States at this point. The collective is arguably one of the best string bands out there and the ultimate experience on the jam band and live music festival and touring circuits. They’ve got the chops bluegrass traditionalists respect, jams the bluegrass non-traditionalists love and an approach to playing music that favors flexibility over genre. Oh, and they have a light show that rivals that of arena-filling rock bands, which everyone can get behind.

Tahoe Onstage

Greensky stagelight: Mandolin player Paul Hoffman.

Friday’s show was sold out the day before tip-off and the Crown Room was packed to the gills before the band even took the stage. There was a buzz in the room that hadn’t been felt over the summer months, as most people opted for outdoor concerts and festivals to get their sunny music fix. Friends greeted each other warmly after differing summer and concert schedules had kept them apart and many of the Crown Room regulars were out in full force for the first time in a while. It was like the first day of school, except with string band jam-hooks and no more teachers’ dirty looks.

Hot Buttered Rum opened the show with a delicious pour of sweet, West Coast Americana. Hot Buttered Rum and Greensky Bluegrass have been simpatico for a while now, having both up in the music scene around the same time. The band is opening on a number of shows this fall tour. Rum was joyous and rambunctious as it whipped through its repertoire, a perfect spark for Greensky’s flame.

The night’s show was billed as a “Road to Hangtown” and Greensky Bluegrass hinted just how they might be getting to the festival with the opening strut of “Jaywalking.” “It’s not like we were jaywalking/ now we got Reno on our trail/ we’ve been through this before but it still doesn’t make any sense,” sang Hoffman, a fitting nod to both the locale and the don’t-spoil-a-good-time jumpiness of the track, which probably hit close to home for a couple people in attendance.

The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” was next in line and it provided the night’s first jam vehicle, with the group stretching the sunny folk-pop number into a 13-minute psychedelic acousticopia that featured flourishing back and forth between Hoffman, Bruzza and Bont, with Beck’s dobro capping the jam with a fiery run. Whipping out a sweet cover and tacking on big, heady jams to songs are two of Greensky’s signature calling cards and they accomplished that just two songs into a two-set extravaganza. But the band is no two-trick pony and through the night it was a multi-faceted workhorse that powered 700 souls with quality acoustic shredding.

For the people that came for newer Greensky, there was the rambling weirdness of “Take Cover” from last year’s album “Shouted, Written Down & Quoted,” and the night’s emphasis on 2014’s “If Sorrows Swim,” with “Kerosene,” “Demons,” “A Letter to Seymour” and others on the docket. For fans who had been there from the beginning, there was a crisp “200 Miles From Montana” and deep-cut bust out “Steam Powered Aeroplane” from the band’s first album. Something that is sometimes overlooked about Greensky Bluegrass is how well-crafted its songs are, thanks in large part to Hoffman’s insightful writing. Pairing the writing with the mandolinist’s honeyed baritone is an X-factor in the band’s sound and can create some very beautiful moments, which shined brightly on tunes such as “Forget Everything” and “Out Of Control.” Whatever you were looking for from Greensky on Friday, you most likely found.

And for the face melters out there, there was plenty of that to go around in the second set. Not only did the group provide a sleek Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” and a scorching rendition of Eric Clapton’s “After Midnight” that closed the night, it also touted jam behemoths “All Four” and “Don’t Lie” for maximum musical expansion. “All Four” clocked in at a cool 16 minutes and “Don’t Lie” broke the 20-minute mark, giving the crew plenty of time to indulge in some stream-of-consciousness jamming.

Greensky Bluegrass cruised smoothly all night. Though the musicians weren’t charting unknown waters anywhere in terms of musical possibilities, which can be a small letdown to veteran fans, they navigated through a quality set that highlighted all of their strengths. At this point in its career, Greensky is the industry-standard for high-caliber string band music, a coveted position that the members have surely earned. They are the captains of their own musical journey and where they plot their next destination is not entirely known yet. But you can be sure that the road leading there will be filled with devoted followers.

-Garrett Bethmann

Tahoe Onstage

Anders Beck on the dobro at Crystal Bay.

Tahoe Onstage

For the second year in a row, Greensky Bluegrass sells out the Crown Room.

Tahoe Onstage

Butter boys Zebulon Bowles and Nat Keefe get the show started.

 

About Garrett Bethmann

Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. He moved to Lake Tahoe in summer 2012.

2 comments

  1. Hey man I dig your style, I thought you captured the whole spirit of the thing pretty well. However, your credibity suffers if you can’t attribute proper song writing credits. While yes, Steam Powered Aereo Plane does in fact appear on Greensky’s first album, so does Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. It seems more pertinent to give a nod to songwriter John Hartford there than it does to use it to springboard into the band’s own songwriting. Which I agree is well crafted and insightful. If I misinterpreted what you were getting at, please forgive me. However, calling After Midnight an Eric Clapton song is damn near sacrilege.

    • Garrett replies, “Scott, thank you for your reply and we appreciate your insight and knowledge.

      “I agree with you that John Hartford could be given a nod in regards to Steam Powered Aeroplane. However, my intention about talking about songwriting and voice was meant to highlight “Forget Everything” and “Out of Control,” which are mentioned at the end of the paragraph. That could have been better accomplished by splicing that into two paragraphs instead of one. And you are absolutely correct about “After Midnight” and Eric Clapton, it’s JJ Cale’s song. Big slip of the mind while writing, atonement for the sin must be carried out in front of the Rock Gods. If you have any ideas about how to do such a thing, please let us know.”

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