To Feel The Weight Of What We Do: Anders Beck On Greensky Bluegrass, Finding Gratitude & More

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Words by: Mike Mannon

Greensky Bluegrass has been on a roll over the last year. The band released their best record, Shouted, Written Down And Quoted, last September and sold out Red Rocks for the first time. This year’s heavy touring schedule has featured largely sold-out rooms, and a Saturday evening slot at Lockn’. Performing in front of a hungry and enthusiastic crowd, the set was as good as any they played all summer.

Currently in the midst of Fall Tour, the band’s word-of-mouth live reputation continues to build anticipation for their upcoming shows. With setlists varying widely from night to night and top notch light and sound production, the demand for Greensky tickets in some cities has reached secondary market status.

Part of that enthusiasm is due to the emotive and fiery dobro work of Anders Beck. Coupled with the nuanced songwriting of Paul Hoffman and Dave Bruzza, Beck’s sound forms a soaring lyrical counterpoint to their often introspective songs. Beck joined GSBG in late 2007, seven years after the other members founded the band in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was an inspired move for both parties. Beck’s addition has allowed the band to extend themselves over their last several records into something sonically evocative of their joint bluegrass and jam traditions and somehow completely unique at the same time.

Like the best improvisational musicians, Beck knows how to step back for long segments and come out of the shadows to slay, which makes his playing all the more moving. When we talked I found that willingness to play for the greater good, that ability to support the sound to lift all boats, is something that was bred into him early and continues to spill over into his personal passions outside of music.

About as comfortable in his own skin as you’ll find in a musician, Beck is internally lit. Funny and disarming, he’s a people pleaser. But beneath the outgoing and outsized personality, Beck measures his words, particularly about his band. They are — in Beck’s own words — an intensely close group. He’s fiercely protective of the special bubble his four band mates and their loyal group of touring fans have built.

When you see him onstage with a t-shirt that says only “Same Team,” it’s clearly a message he believes in. As he says here, he tends to fill that role of level-lifter both onstage and off. And he plays his instrument with a glee that hints at the tour kid he still is in so many ways.

Unintentionally, our conversation played out over two important markers for the band: the night before the band played their first ever set at Lockn’ and several weeks later in Lake Tahoe before the start of their Fall tour.

Mike Mannon: You have a fascinating backstory for a dobro player. Can you tell me a little about your parents and your upbringing?

Anders Beck: [Laughs] Yeah, I guess I did. My parents were professional tennis players, which is how they met. I grew up in Philly and my parents have been there for most of their lives. But back then, unless you were like top-five in the world, being a professional tennis player also meant you needed a job. [Laughs] So my dad was also a lawyer. And then he also started his own thing, doing consulting with doctors, helping them run their businesses.

But through tennis, they also started working with inner-city kids, trying to create positivity in their lives. You know, two white people with tennis rackets [laughs] going to the city in some deeply impoverished places, saying, “This is something fun, something positive you can get involved with.” So they were helping these kids develop, helping fix up some of the city’s older tennis courts in disrepair for it.

It grew into what was the National Junior Tennis League – they started the Philadelphia chapter of it. And they were friends with Arthur Ashe, who helped them with it and used to stay at our house all the time. So what started as this real grassroots thing, really turned into something much bigger.

They’ve always impressed upon me how important doing good for others is for basic human existence. You can be rich or happy or the obvious things you can go for, but if you’re not really helping others, trying to make the world a better place, then maybe you’re not doing all you’re supposed to be doing.

MM: And you worked for a couple of non-profits too, right?

AB: The environmental side was what I was, am, really passionate about. What I saw was there is a real disconnect between the science side and the leadership side.

Scientists aren’t really supposed to influence — your job is: here are the facts. But then the decision-makers have to take that and act on it. And what I saw is there was an interesting place in the middle to try and help make that conversation happen, that that would be a meaningful thing to do.

I was the executive director of a small watershed group in Durango, Colorado. And I was playing music all the time, but the music just began to take off. So I had to make a decision: do I do what I studied in college and try to help people, help the world, or should I go try and play music?

I had some really interesting conversations with a couple of my older friends who were musicians, and they said, “If you can go play music in a band that would potentially work, you have to go for it. Go attempt to live that dream. If it doesn’t work out, and most likely it won’t, then you can come back and do whatever you want to do.” And it turned out it worked.

MM: How long was it until you quit your job?

AB: It was maybe about a year while I was doing both. But even now that world is really important to me. As a musician trying to make it, you spend so much of your time just trying to put food on the table. So when you get to that point when you can finally breathe, like just recently, you get a chance to look around and to try and find what you can to help other people. I’m really excited to be at that point.

MM: I was curious about that. Tell me about the recent benefit you and Travis Book (of The Infamous Stringdusters) played.

AB: That was so great. My girlfriend Hilary put on that benefit for the kick-off of her company Level and to support Natural Capitalism Solutions. She helps connect bands and businesses in the entertainment world with non-profits. I’ve noticed, and she has too, that it’s hard to do both. As an artist you are creating your thing, your music, whatever it is, but at the same time you have this platform — you are in a position that you can do good.

MM: So similar to that liaison role you were talking about?

AB: Exactly. You know, it’s not as simple as it seems if you want to have large impact. There’s just so many great organizations out there. And how do you help people find them? Sometimes it takes a for-profit company to help a non-profit make the difference that they are trying to make.

Positive change in the world is something that’s really important to both of us. So she hooked up with NCS to try to get people in Denver to start noticing their carbon footprint, and ways to offset their carbon footprint. Getting people in a big city to realize what your day-to-day carbon usage is—which I think is really interesting. How do you, if nothing else, become carbon neutral—at least not hurt the environment?

So she asked me to put something together musically to support it, and it was this great excuse to play with Travis again too.

MM: And you know Travis because you were in Broke Mountain together, before you hooked up with the Greensky guys. Was it tough when you met the Greensky guys and had to integrate yourself? They already had a tight thing going.

AB: No, because we’re just all the same. There’s a reason I joined this band. First of all, we get along pretty well. Musicality aside, we’d hang out at a festival or something, and we’re all just friends, which is helpful. It was a pretty easy integration, I’d say.

MM: Between all of you, but particularly between you and Paul, there’s seems to be almost a call-and-response type of connection.

AB: The dobro being such a lyrical instrument, that’s what draws me to it, it just sort of sings. You’re sliding and it’s kind of like the human voice in a way. So in general I see that as the role of the instrument. There’s these holes in between what someone sings and my job is to fill those holes musically. But you get a killer songwriter like Paul or Dave, it makes it so much more fun to do that.

I think that’s the musicality that we all share, we just speak the same language, and it’s been that way since I started the band. A lot of it is how we all came to the music. We weren’t raised bluegrass players.

MM: Was it the move to Durango that brought that love of bluegrass for you?

AB: Yeah, I was always into bluegrass a bit, but when I bunch of my friends started playing bluegrass there, I really sunk into it.

MM: And down there, you were friends with Burle [bluegrass guitarist Benny Galloway, perhaps best known for his record Old Hands with Yonder Mountain String Band]?

AB: Burle taught me so much – everything almost. Especially the difference between a good and a bad song and how big that difference is.

So every Tuesday we’d go to his house, myself, Travis Book, another friend Chris Becker, we’d go over there, and we’d basically have a songwriting workshop. Everyone would play their songs, and it would be, “That one’s good, that one sucks, here’s why this is good…”

And I learned pretty early that I shouldn’t be writing lyrics. Not that I was bad, but I was surrounded by people who were really good at it.

MM: That will teach you quick.

AB: Yeah, I mean, I thought “if we’re going to work on songs, let’s work on those songs. They are killer.” And I found my role is to make killer songs better and that’s always been my role. Burle would give me lyrics and a song and he would say, “now make that better.” So I’d be writing hooks to them, things like that. I’m so grateful to him.

MM: In Broke Mountain, you had all of these players who have now really done well for themselves. Kind of amazing, that lineup, right?

AB: Yeah, Travis, Jon Stickley, Robin Davis, Andy Thorn, who is with Leftover Salmon.

MM: So when are you reuniting that?

AB: We’re going to do it. But it’s so hard—just timing-wise. When we do it, we’re not just going to do it on a little stage at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. When we do it, it’s going to be special, because looking back on it, and seeing where everyone went, we thought we were pretty good, and now, I think maybe we were kind of right [Laughs].

We were like a baseball farm team. So we’re going to get it back together eventually and it’s going to be cool. The guys from North Carolina, Stickley and Thorn, they taught us Colorado guys how to really play bluegrass. [Laughs]

MM: It is a different thing, that traditional Appalachian sound, right?

AB: It’s a real thing, for sure.

MM: Speaking of that divide, when did you discover the Old & In The Way record?

AB: Well, I’ve always consumed everything Jerry [Garcia] was on, so that was my first taste of it, that’s what pulled me in. Kind of backwards approach to finding bluegrass, but I’ll go out on a limb and say every single one of us got into bluegrass because of that record. Most everyone I know did—except for those North Carolina kids.

So yeah, you start talking to people about it and all the sudden you find yourself surrounded by like-minded people playing banjos.

MM: Have you known [Old & In The Way member David Grisman’s son] Samson long? You guys just played some shows with him this winter.

AB: Just relatively recently. He’s a little younger than me; I met Sam through music. He’s one of the younger generation of badasses. I call them the Mensa Club — they’re like the genius club. The guys who go to Berklee and get better at bluegrass. Jesus, you’re already great — you don’t need to get better!

So we just wanted to play together, and we put that band together for a few shows. [Phoffman Beck Quartet, which played several shows over the winter].

Yeah, so for Sam it was “Uncle Jerry.” He tells stories of Jerry being over at the house growing up and it’s crazy!

But Old & In The Way, I firmly believe it doesn’t get enough credit for turning these whole generations onto bluegrass. In the traditional bluegrass community, nobody really gets it. If you learned bluegrass from Flat & Scruggs and that line, you kind of just see it as a mediocre bluegrass band.

MM: Right: “Oh that thing Vassar [Clemmons, traditional bluegrass fiddler who played with Old & In the Way] did . . .”

AB: Exactly, but it turned so many people onto this music. It’s amazing.

MM: I think what’s exciting is that spirit of mixing the traditional and progressive is so prevalent right now. We talked a couple of weeks ago right before you were getting ready to play Lockn’ for the first time. What was it like?

AB: You can tell it’s a festival put on by people who love music. We get to play so many incredible festivals; it’s so great. But Lockn’s site was amazing, everyone was so happy to be there, the production was amazing, that rotating stage – just waiting for it to start moving with Keller [Williams] hitting his last note as the stage starts spinning and we came around playing. So cool.

The attention to detail is so high with [Peter] Shapiro and his people. They clearly just love music and are constantly asking, “What can we do to make it cooler? Let’s mash these bands up and see what comes out of it. Maybe it’s great, maybe not, but let’s see.” As a creative person, you can’t ask for more than that. I thought it was one of our best sets of the summer, and I firmly believe it was about that surrounding vibe they create.

MM: And you just sold out Red Rocks for the second straight year. Has that sunk in?

AB: Man, it’s hard for me to even think about. We just sold out Red Rocks with a month to go. It’s pretty ridiculous. When I think about it, it tends to overwhelm me, so I try to just pretend it’s normal: “Yeah, of course we did!” That place has always been my goal, having gone to college in Colorado and seeing a lot of bands there. That musical era of my life, driving up to Red Rocks and seeing four nights of Phish, that was fun. So that place became my musical mecca.

Sometimes I’m just confused about whose life I’m … I mean, who do we think we are?

Our fans are just so amazing to me. People that follow us, go to a bunch of shows in a row, go on tour. I used to do that with bands. So I understand the level of commitment, first of all, but the amount you have to like that music. . .

MM: Because it’s not easy to do.

AB: Right! The fact that people like our music that much boggles my mind. But at the same time, I like our music that much! [laughs]

MM: So you get it?

AB: Oh yeah. I’m a big fan of our music, but you aren’t really allowed to say that. I was talking to [Phish archivist] Kevin Shapiro, and he asks me “you know who is the biggest fan of Phish is? Mike Gordon. He’s the biggest fan there is.” So it was great, I was like, “you’re allowed to be a fan of your music.”

Because among of us, to keep it sane, we just talk to each other about the things we fucked up. We don’t talk about the good stuff at all. We don’t come off stage and talk about it. Sometimes it’s like “that was cool,” and that’s it. It’s weird; you’d think we’d talk about it, but somehow it works for us. We know when something works though, and so the next time we play it, we’re able to find that again.

MM: That’s an amazing thing, right? There aren’t a whole lot of jobs out there with that level of connection, of interpersonal intuition.

AB: I think of us as just one thing. To even try to divide us up and think about it that way, I rarely do it. Because we’re all so close, we’re such good friends. And we also get to do this thing musically. It’s just really weird. There’s two killer songwriters, and the rest of us are building this thing that is Greensky, you know what I mean? It’s a really interesting process. It starts with just maybe Paul with a guitar, playing us this song, and we take the song, the five of us, and we twist it up into a Greensky song together.

MM: Paul actually told me a few months ago that the writing on this one was coming a little slower, but have you locked into a few tunes by now that you know are going to be on the next record?

AB: There are a few. We haven’t played them [live]. After a record, everyone just kind of stops and says “we’re good” and takes a deep breath. “We did it, we made a good record,” and then we get so excited to play those things. But yes, there are a few that have emerged.

MM: So obviously your playing brings a lot of emotion sonically to the sound you guys create onstage. It moves people deeply, clearly. Do you get emotional up there? I know you get lost in it, but does it get you by the heart sometimes what you’re playing?

AB: Yeah … it does. Emotional is a good word for it. Sometimes, we’re playing the jam on “Living Over” and I get to this peak of it, and I’ve been onstage welling up with tears. There are these really transcendent moments, it hits me like a ton of bricks.

It’s almost like an out-of-body experience. Then the minute I reach that state, it gets ripped away from me. Because my inner reaction is, “Holy shit, this is why you play music.” And then I think, “okay don’t fuck it up.” I guess there’s a lesson in there somewhere. [Laughs]

It’s pretty interesting: there’s times when I’m driving the bus and sometimes I’m chasing it. I’m trying to pull emotion out of the instrument. But I’m also trying to pull it out of people who are listening. I’m trying to make people feel. If I’m doing it well, it will get me instead, or maybe not instead, but along with the people I’m aiming for.

It’s powerful. Because I’m doing the thing, but I’m also feeling it.

MM: I previously described your playing in a piece as “sweeping up Hoffman’s broken psyche in minor key,” but I think I was just trying to be poetic. Do you play as much minor key stuff as it seems to me you do, or am I crazy?

You’re probably crazy. [Laughs] I think what you are hearing probably has more to do with the sustain. If it’s a dark song, I do want to make it darker. But my instrument allows me, with its sustain, to bring that screaming electric guitar solo if we need it. Nobody else’s acoustic instrument really has that to that level.

But at the same time, if it’s major, if it’s a happier song, I want to bring it even higher too. I just want to lift it.

MM: Is that your personality too?

AB: Well, I would say I tend to try to lift people up musically, personally all the time, almost to a fault sometimes. I’ve always been that way. Maybe it’s me being the third boy in a family of three? Always competing for attention, I don’t know. I’ve just always been enamored with making every moment the most fun it can be…again, almost to a fault [laughs].

MM: You know, that last child thing is where most of the stand-up comics come from, right?

AB: Doesn’t surprise me at all. I’d love to do stand-up at an open mic if I could be assured there would be no one I know in the audience, because I would just tank.

MM: So short of stand-up, what’s next, what do you want to do on this Fall tour that you haven’t done? Who do you want to be?

AB: We just started talking about it today [laughs]. We all got home from Lockn’ and it was like “Wow, summer’s over.” It snuck up on me.

I kind of shut it down, but I went and saw JRAD at Red Rocks in between, and it was amazing to see them play whatever the hell they wanted to play. It helped me remember you can do anything you want with music.

They were in the middle of this song, and they just did a little piece of “The Music Never Stopped,” “oh, ooh, ooohh, ohh,” and fell into that groove, and then immediately left that groove again. But it was so evocative. It was such a great reminder that there are no boundaries. If we have any boundaries in our music, we created them for ourselves. I want to try and remember that.

And just be aware of it all. That we get to do this. We’re playing the Warfield Theatre (in San Francisco) tomorrow night. And when you walk in the dressing room, you see Jerry’s star there. You think “OK. This is something. This was his home away from home.” Things like that get me excited, to feel the weight of what we do. This is what we get to do.

The way this run is set up, we should be firing on all cylinders by the time we get to Red Rocks — which is my favorite venue in the world — just ready to crush. Hard to say if we will or not, but that’s the goal. At that same time, we’re all super-psyched to play tonight, tomorrow night.

Tonight could be the best night or the tour or some random Tuesday, you just never know.

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