Having one of its members go over the side of a cliff on Vail Mountain, winding up in the emergency room (yet rallying to perform) and then having its tour bus get stuck in the snow on the side of a hill did not deter Greensky Bluegrass from bringing down the house at Winter Wondergrass. And the band is slated to perform, once more, at this year’s festival to be held February 18 through 21, 2016, in Avon’s Nottingham Park – hopefully, without any obstacles! It’s the group’s third appearance at the festival, which features bluegrass and acoustic roots music.
“There’s this great duality to our band,” reflects Greensky Bluegrass mandolinist, vocalist and songwriter, Paul Hoffman. “We’re existing in a few different places at once; we’re a bluegrass band and a rock band. We’re song-driven and interested in extended improvisation.”
“We play acoustic instruments,” adds dobro player Anders Beck, “but we put on a rock ‘n’ roll show. We’re as loud as your favorite rock band. It’s not easy to make five acoustic instruments sound like this – it’s something we’ve spent years working on.”
The five members of Greensky Bluegrass have forged a defiant, powerful sound that, while rooted in classic string band Americana, extends outward with an exploratory zeal. And it’s the tension and release between various components – tradition and innovation, prearranged songs and improvisation, acoustic tones and electric volume – that makes them so dynamic.
That their sound is so seamless, so organic, is testament to Greensky’s enduring vision and tireless dedication. Since the band’s first rumblings at the start of the millennium, they have emerged as relentless road warriors, creating a captivating live show while, at the same time, developing it’s own evocative sound.
Greensky – which also includes banjoist Michael Arlen Bont, bassist Michael Devol and guitarist, Dave Bruzza – arrived at their unique take on bluegrass tradition by working from the outside inward.
“I found bluegrass through the back door,” says Beck, “through the Jerry Garcia route. That’s how I began listening to Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. It’s really interesting how many people from our generation got into acoustic music through that channel.”
Approaching their instruments from an open-ended rock perspective gave Greensky the freedom to create its own roots. “We were always coming at bluegrass backwards,” Hoffman shares. “We were better musicians than we were bluegrass musicians. I mean, I didn’t buy a mandolin until I was 18. Dave didn’t start playing acoustic guitar until he was 16. Arlen got a banjo when he was 20. We discovered that when it came to learning these instruments, we preferred to do so by improvising and writing our own songs instead of playing standard material and fiddle tunes.”
The roots of Greensky Bluegrass lay in the friendship of Bruzza and Bont. While nurturing a nascent interest in acoustic music, they were joined by Hoffman. The trio played informally in living rooms and at open mics for years before setting out as a band. Devol, a classically trained cellist, was added in the fall of 2004, and in 2006 the group won the coveted band contest at Colorado’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival. At that point, the members dedicated themselves to Greensky full time and began widening their touring radius.
In 2007, dobroist Beck came on board. From the sidelines, he was quick to pinpoint the band’s appeal. “It was all about the songs,” he says. “You can be the best pickers in the world or the most educated musician, but, all in all, the things that connect with people are songs, lyrics and melodies. That was the real kicker.”
By playing up to 175 shows a year, mostly in rock clubs and festivals like Telluride, Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo, the New Orleans Jazz, the Heritage Festival and Avon’s Winter Wondergrass, Greensky Bluegrass became a word-of-mouth underground sensation, cultivating a devoted legion of fans entranced by both the band’s improvisation acumen and the quality of its songwriting. And, despite its wide-ranging musical interests, Greensky continues to work within the structure of a classic five-man string band.
“While there are potential limitations because of our instrumentation,“ Beck adds, “a really big part of what is Greensky Bluegrass is about is to, essentially, ignore those limitations.
As their music and has grown, so have the members of Greensky Bluegrass. It’s a challenge, which they welcome and embrace.
“When we were doing our first shows and making those early records,” Hoffman concludes, “it was stressful because we wanted to hit the right notes. We just wanted it to be good enough. But now, we want it to be great!”