Greensky Bluegrass with Danny Barnes | NYE Run | Review
Greensky Bluegrass with Danny Barnes :: 12.30.10-12.31.10 :: Cervantes’ Other Side :: Denver, CO
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.
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.
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.
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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