Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Josh Mishell
Greensky Bluegrass with Danny Barnes :: 12.30.10-12.31.10 :: Cervantes’ Other Side :: Denver, CO
Denver certainly wasn’t short of choices in the New Year’s revelry department. One could have ushered in 2011 with Widespread Panic at the Pepsi Center, STS9 at the Fillmore, or Railroad Earth at the Ogden, and that’s just naming the bigger shows. But I think I made the right choice by spending it with Greensky Bluegrass and Danny Barnes at Cervantes' Other Side . Nestled up in Five Points, a historically black neighborhood with a rich jazz history - and nowadays demonstrating the age-old story of rough-and-tumble urban center meets gentrification – the venue was somewhat removed from the neon and crowds of downtown just a few blocks away. It gave the show a semi-exclusive secret party vibe, and even The Motet thumping through the walls next door in the main room of Cervantes didn’t take away from the refreshing sense of intimacy. Not to say things didn’t get wild - when you’ve got one of the most fearlessly independent and creative musicians working today opening up for one of the most energetic, hard working acoustic roots outfits pounding that pavement, you know damn well some sparks are going to fly.
|Greensky Bluegrass by Josh Mishell|
Barnes kicked off both nights’ festivities performing solo on the “barnjo” - a custom-made hybrid banjo/electric guitar that he debuted this summer at Northwest String Summit. Melding the hammering drive and fine detail of his banjo-work on an instrument that allows him to fully embrace plugged-in rock-and-roll aggression, it proved the perfect outlet for his own wonderfully mercurial musical nature. Unlike the FolkTronics approach he had previously taken with his music, where he used Ableton software to craft a broad palette with the banjo, looping the instrument and incorporating beats and samples, this method had a considerably more stripped-down aesthetic. But this was some pure diesel, as Barnes travelled between sonic moods and textures with a tight, dizzying quickness.
|Danny Barnes by Josh Mishell|
It was cool to hear the open-throttle versions of songs spanning his career over both nights, from Bad Livers (“Lumpy, Beanpole & Dirt,” “Little Bitty Town,” “Legend of Sawdust Boogers,” “Going Where They Do Not Know My Name,” “Love Songs Suck”) through his latest album, the brilliant Pizza Box. Take, “Sleep,” a claustrophobic tale based on a friend of Barnes who went to jail. He told Barnes he was relieved when the cops finally busted in his door, because he knew they were coming and he could finally get some sleep. On Pizza Box, it unfolds like an unhinged dream, but the barnjo interpretation tapped its murky, shuddering dread in direct, close-to-the-bone cuts.
Meanwhile during “Everything Fades,” on the line “Everything fades/That was made by a man,” Barnes simply let a lonely, lovely hum hang in the air, as if to emphasize that point, before spiraling down into some heavy Stooges-like stomping. Barnes utilized the instrument with equally potency on more delicate tunes like Things I Done Wrong’s “Big Girl Blues,” which he nicely segued into T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” on New Year’s Eve, and “Overdue,” where he let the notes gracefully float and dissolve in the air. Plus you have to appreciate a man who wrote “Love Songs Suck” – which lent itself to a crushing barnjo interpretation perfectly - writing “Overdue.” It’s a love song which, to put it mildly, in no way sucks at all. That’s how you show ‘em how it’s done.
|Danny Barnes by Josh Mishell|
The barnjo also allows Barnes to more-readily tap the punk rock heart that has always set him apart from the often-tired roots music scene. He even played Minor Threat on the first night of the run for, "All the designated drivers out there," ripping out a vicious cover of “Straight Edge." It was a pretty ballsy song choice, especially on the cusp of a holiday that’s become associated with getting as FUBARed as possible. Barnes has always had that element of subversion in his music, and this latest badass development is no exception.
Despite the “Bluegrass” in their name, Greensky aren’t trying to fit neatly into that category or cater to the IBMA crowd. They’ve obviously done their musical homework, but they pull from their own frames of reference in a way that keeps their sound fresh, rooted in a thoroughly modern sensibility rather than nostalgia. They are as likely to cover Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson as they are classic bluegrass tunes - and treat them with the same ace musicianship (not a lame Pickin’ On approach). Meanwhile, their original songwriting features a splendid attention to melody and old soul contemplations that dig deeper than the atypical road and mountain songs written by many acoustic roots bands.
They also are one hard touring band. According to the stage banter, by mandolin player Paul Hoffman’s math, the band has averaged 187 driving miles each day since 2007. But it’s so obvious that they love what they do for a living, that they are just flat out fun to watch. Take the jam out of ”Freeborn Man” during the first set on the first night, where they threw around musical references the way movie geeks throw around film quotes. This Jimmy Martin tune is one of those songs that is so oft-played that it can make for pretty tired covers, or dive into masturbatory bluegrass solo-passing territory. But Greensky kept things snappy and locomotive. Guitarist Dave Bruzza teased ‘The Simpsons’ theme, and dobro-player Anders Beck got down on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” when he came up to bat. Hoffman jumped and boogied as he sang snatches of “Jump In Line” (an old calypso song made famous by Harry Belafonte), and later Beck and banjo player Michael Arlen Bont both riffed on Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” which Hoffman had led the band in a rousing cover of earlier in the set.
|Paul Hoffman by Josh Mishell|
Other highlights on the first night included a spacious, swirling jam out from “Just to Lie,” off their 2008 album Five Interstates that drove straight on into Benny Galloway-penned “”Train Junkie,” featuring some particularly fierce playing by Bruzza and Beck. I also enjoyed Bont channeling Dwayne Allman on the banjo for the encore of “One Way Out,” a perfect choice for Bruzza’s strong whiskey-and-leather vocals.
But the standout of the night, and maybe all the Greensky sets over the two nights for me, was the Beck-penned “Tarpology.” “I wrote this for Sound Tribe to play, but they haven’t gotten back to me,” he laughed. Stretching well over ten minutes, the song had a perceivable pulse to it, building to mini-peaks and then crashing down again, moments of expanse giving way to tight, fist-pumping fury. It also displayed some killer use of the effects pedals by Beck and Hoffman, pushing the sound way out into bloinky, sci-fi territory. At one point, Beck’s dobro splintered over the drive of the band and then swooped in low and loud, a striking example of the tooth-baring rock and roll approach he takes to the instrument. When it was over, Beck said, “We were Greensky Bluegrass, in case you forgot.”
If Greensky on the 30th was all fire, New Year’s Eve seemed to move in snapshots, with each section of the show having a slightly different, albeit consistently joyful, vibe. After first set opener “What’s Left of the Night,” Barnes joined the band for “Groundhog” and Bad Livers’ “Deathtrip,” where he got deliciously freaky over Mike Devol’s bruising bassline. Bruzza watched intently as he ripped it up on the barnjo, and Beck grinned wildly, obviously excited to have him on the stage. “Groundhog” dropped down into a disco-like thump for a while, before Bont picked up the tempo, giving Barnes and Bont the chance to exchange a little banjo/barnjo interplay. After Barnes’ exit, Greensky busted out a stretch of Beatles songs, including “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Help” (which lent itself to a fast bluegrass interpretation incredibly well), “A Day in the Life,” and the entire B-side of Abbey Road to take us up to set break.
The band came back in the nick of time to ring in 2011 with “Stop That Train,” the balloons falling, couples kissing, glasses raising all around us. The second set clocked in at over two hours, and featured some favorite Greensky songs, like the heart-wrenching “Reverend” and the pick-your-head-up “All Four,” an uplifting way to welcome the New Year as the balloons popped around us at our feet. They were also joined by some friends, specifically, a clean shaven Vince Herman , and later, Boulder-based singer/songwriter Pete Kartsounes, who wailed on the harmonica and picked Bruzza’s guitar while Bruzza drank champagne from the bottle, passing it to people in the front row.
|Dave Bruzza & Vince Herman by Josh Mishell|
Herman always brings a party to the stage. He shook his head so hard during “Way Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie” that his New Year’s hat tumbled off. Later in the song, his mic’s boom arm began to sink downwards. Caught up in the spirit, Herman kept singing into it, following it as went down, before Bruzza reached over and caught it, propping it back upright. Herman then kicked off a round of “Salty Dog,” a song that always gets decidedly dirty. It’s a number you bust out at a late night jam when the kids are in bed and everyone left standing is half in the bag. After passing around a few ribald verses, Herman cried, “Let’s all pick the shit out of this boys!” as Greensky rallied around him. After Herman’s exit, the band would keep up that infectious energy, propelling us past the 2:30 am mark with gusto.
It was a two-night stand that satisfied both my yee haw and punk rock factors, as we bid adios to the foul year of our lord and welcomed the clean slate possibilities of 2011. As I’m writing this, a few days into the year, 2011 is already shaping up to be a rough year. But as a friend of mine recently said to me, “The arts are mankind’s maybe one get out of jail free card.” I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in the fact that there are joyful road warriors and inventive badasses out there, adding to the collective spirit that may just be our one shot at redemption, if we’re smart enough to recognize it.
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