Review & Photos | Greensky Bluegrass | Michigan

Words & Images by: Andrew Bender, Ph.D.

Greensky Bluegrass :: 12.31.13 :: The Intersection :: Grand Rapids, MI

Full review below gallery!

In spite of snowstorms and the bitter cold in Grand Rapids, this past New Year’s Eve Michigan’s own Greensky Bluegrass played to a sold out house. The Intersection is a large, open shed with an expansive floor, but no balcony. Although sold out with over 1500 in attendance, there seemed to be space to move and dance throughout most of the room. Those in attendance included both locals and those who had traveled through snowstorms from neighboring states for the occasion.

Opening for Greensky were fellow Michiganers The Crane Wives, a five piece folk- rock outfit on an upward trajectory since the release of their 2011 debut album, Safe Ship Harbored. Fans of modern folk bands like the Avett Brothers, Lumineers, and Mumford & Sons should be sure to check out The Crane Wives who combine superb vocals and skillful instrumentation to create well-crafted songs with a wide appeal. Unlike their folk contemporaries, however, the Grand Rapids-based band features two female singer-songwriters who trade off on lead vocals, as well as banjo, bass, and drums. Performing popular favorites from Safe Ship Harbored and their 2012 album, The Fool in her Wedding Gown, the hometown heroes played an impressive opening set that had the audience more than ready for the headlining act.

The five members of Greensky Bluegrass took the stage wearing matching white tuxedos, replete with white bow ties, cummerbunds and tails. A fairly standard “Jaywalking” opener segued into a cover of Grisman’s furious newgrass tune “Eat My Dust”. Greensky quickly drove EMD to a fever pitch of intensity as rhythm and lead duties were passed around the band. Guitarist Dave Bruzza’s six-string and Paul Hoffman’s mandolin played off Michael Arlen Bont’s complex banjo and Anders Beck’s dobro which proved more slippery than New Years resolutions on January 2nd. All the while, bassist Mike Devol’s heavy rhythm line provided an impressive sonic foundation. Next, the band brought the pace back down with “Windshield”, a newer Greensky original. A doleful, lamenting singer-songwriter tune, Windshield channels the emotions of loss in a way few jam bands are able. Combining masterful lyrics with a driving melody, “Windshield” is a chilling anti-ballad that features crescendoing vocals by Hoffman and Beck’s dobro lead that rides atop the musical layers. “Just to Lie” was followed by the newer Bruzza-penned bluegrass song “Letter to Seymour” which speeds along at a fast clip with punctuated rhythm. Next, Greensky played another Hoffman-penned song “In Control” that has evolved over the past couple of years from an apparently personal singer-songwriter tune into another complex number with an intense jam.

Flow once again followed ebb as the band broke into a cover of New Grass Revival’s fast- paced “Don’t Stop Now” as the bending notes from dobro leads and Devol’s building bass line increased the intensity of the number. Instrumental psycho-jamgrass number “Broke Mountain Breakdown” followed. “Broke Mountain Breakdown” has been among the band’s favorite vehicles for drawn out improvised jams, incorporating numerous effects as the breakdown builds and is subsequently deconstructed into a spacey psychedelic jam. (Pro tip: Any performance that Anders Beck says, “Here’s a song I wrote just for this performance,” he’s really playing BMB). As rhythm duties shuffled between Bruzza and Hoffman, and Devol’s bass thumped the crowd in near-EDM intensity, Beck’s dobro lead teased Auld Lang Syne before launching into the opening bars of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” Despite minor vocal flubs on the first couple of verses, the song is wildly popular among Greensky fans and was otherwise well executed. The band closed out the first set with their original Tied Down – an older GSBG newgrass ode that pays homage to their home state of Michigan - with lines like “I don’t want to dig my car out of the snow six months out of the year,” and “I want to be some place people appreciate these kinds of songs,” the song was particularly apropos given both the snowstorm raging outside and the band’s roots in western Michigan.

The second set started with another Greensky Bluegrass original not heard for some time as the band bust out its classic banjo-driven instrumental number “Indian Trail.” Next, Greensky launched into the traditional bluegrass song “Deal.” While Bruzza’s six-string and Devol’s bass provided the song’s driving rhythm, Beck, Bont, and Hoffman traded lead duties as Bruzza’s lead vocals lent a gravelly edge to the song. Greensky original song “Lose My Way” followed, a song featuring themes of economic and personal hardships that resonates for so many in the rust belt and beyond. Instrumentally, the song is notable for its extended jam featuring hypnotic leads by mandolin and dobro that both complement and later contrast the disconsolate nature of the song’s subject matter. Given the band’s chosen wardrobe for the occasion, the cover of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” came as no big surprise. The crowd couldn’t help but cheer as banjo, dobro, and mandolin played off one another between verses of the classic rock song. Following a solid performance of Greensky hit “Old Barns” was Bruzza’s up-tempo song “Kerosene”, which fueled the fire raging in the Intersection. The song’s ferocity had the audience dancing feverishly in response, particularly when the distorted, reverb-laden effects from the guitars hammered the crowd.

The band maintained the pace with the second Springsteen cover of the night, “Dancing In The Dark”, that kept the party going strong. As Hoffman nailed the vocal, exquisite banjo and dobro leads bent notes and minds alike. “Dancing In The Dark” featured an extended ending that softly segued into the New Year’s countdown. As the New Year rang in, the electric guitar effect from Beck’s dobro sang out with the opening notes of “Auld Lang Syne” with a tone reminiscent of the Jimi Hendrix Woodstock national anthem. The traditional New Year’s song was then picked up by the rest of the band for a kickass bluegrass rendition on which it is difficult to pick a stand out player. Hoffman’s mandolin took lead and subtle fills and flourishes were added by Bont’s 5-string banjo, and wrapped up again by Beck’s drop steel as he shouted to the crowd, “Happy fucking New Year!” Greensky started 2014 with a ripping cover of the Old and In the Way/Peter Rowan tune “Midnight Moonlight.” Notable not just because this may be the first time they’ve actually played the song at midnight, but because it represents exactly what makes Greensky such a force to be reckoned with. With Hoffman’s strong lead vocal and harmonies added by Devol and Bont and tight playing by all, the song was a great example of how Greensky Bluegrass is able to layer instruments and weave a sonic tapestry.

Greensky's signature song “Don’t Lie” followed, which Anders described as a New Years resolution penned by Hoffman. Another poignant tune that combines indie singer-songwriter sentiment with bluegrass instrumentation, “Don’t Lie” makes for an impressive vehicle for improvisation. Although the NYE performance did not receive quite the extended treatment of some prior performances, it was spot on nevertheless as all the sounds from all five instruments combined for an impressively intense jam with a remarkable internal dynamic of its own. The “Don’t Lie” jam transitioned seamlessly into the Bruzza ballad “Wings for Wheels”, bringing the tempo down before transitioning back into the “Don’t Lie” jam fusing elements from both songs with snippets of “Sharp Dressed Man” thrown in by Beck, and finally the final verse of “Don’t Lie” to finish the band’s first musical sandwich of the New Year. A brief instrumental reprise of “Broke Mountain Breakdown” closed out the second set.

The New Year’s show encore included a rare performance of the classic bluegrass tune “Nine Pound Hammer” as Hoffman and Bruzza shared vocal duties in call and response fashion. Next, following a tight performance of Greensky’s song “Demons” the band thanked their crew for a great year. As the band is clearly dependent on FOH sound engineer Greg Burns for maintaining their unique sound; similarly the visual contributions of lighting director Andrew Lincoln over the past two years have been a huge complement to Greensky’s psychedelic bluegrass music. Closing out the show was a magnificent performance of the Hoffman-penned song “Leap Year” – between spot on vocals, a powerful jam that was a musical journey unto itself, and a brief “Shakedown Street” tease courtesy of Beck, the song was all anyone could ask for before a quick Outro brought the night to an end.

The 2013-2014 New Year’s show highlighted both Greensky’s music maturity as they move into a new stage in their career. Instead of relying on novel covers the band is more devoted to nailing their own tunes that have been honed by a relentless touring schedule playing over 150 gigs a year for the past several. Once again, Greensky Bluegrass showed why they are an incredible band to help you party down.

Setlist:

Set 1: Jaywalking > EMD, Windshield, Just to Lie?, Letter to Seymour, In Control, Can't Stop Now, Broke Mountain Breakdown, Atlantic City, Tied Down
Set 2: 1119 pm, Indian Trail, Lose My Way, Sharp Dressed Man, Old barns, Kerosene > Dancing in the Dark > Countdown > Auld Lang syne > Midnight Moonlight Don't lie>(wow) Wings for Wheels> Jam (with bits of dont lie and sdm peppered thruout) > Don't Lie
E: Nine Pound Hammer, Demons, Leap Year

“Windshield” (video courtesy of Ryan Yuenger at therapidian.org):

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[Published on: 1/8/14]

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