Band Turns Sky Green with Blue Grass and Other Transformative Acts
Out of Kalamazoo, MI, have come winds of musical change and sonic transformation. Guys like Paul Hoffman take a mandolin and channel it like an instrument of telepathic immersion. Swimming in a third world where the spiritual erupts and slides up and down like new language not bound by the dimensional. Guys like Anders Beck weld their left arm to the steel fittings of the broad sweep on dobro wood to mingle otherworldly rapture with ultra-human speed. The result runs the race course of musical discourse from rootsy rapture to immersive audience grand gesture. At the Norva in Norfolk, VA, this past week, Greensky Bluegrass charted that course again, surprising some while meeting expectations of others traveling significant distances to add another totem to their poles.
I went expecting them to be very good and outside the norm of bluegrass or any other genre for that matter. But, other dimensions were new. I first learned about those significations from Chef Roadie, as he said they call him, the personable and helpful merch provider that night. Chef said “hi,” to a woman stopping by the merch counter and told me that GB (my abbreviation for Greensky Bluegrass) attracts groups of fans following them around the country. People will, much like for the Dead back in the day, and others such as Phish, come to see them from other areas, whether in groups or otherwise. All ages, Chef said, and told me to watch for the range from young to old.
And, it proved true. I did see all ages, but I only saw one little girl, maybe 7 years old, but she was front row and stayed through the second set, getting on toward midnight. She pulled out a reserve of energy at the end, giving the band a double thumbs pump from atop her father’s shoulders. The band made sure she got a pick and a set list after the opening set. They also changed the set to do her request of “200 Miles from Montana,” a good choice.
Not Just Fast
Starting back in 2000, they’ve been around for a while, perfecting things. In their energy and generosity and virtuosity, they did remind me that night of the Dead as well as Springsteen and Widespread Panic.
The music is extraordinary. It’s not just fast. The speed and fury come with a beauty in the sound that doesn’t get garbled but instead only builds in intensity, making musical points within the fabric of the passage being interpreted in the moment. Hoffman rocks on his toes at times and swings his body forward and back. Anders rocks into the sound, flattens it with a sweep of the warm tones of his large instrument, then rocks back, from fury to furious but fully in control and melodic sweep.
Voices are fine as well, adding to the musical portraits being painted throughout the performance. And, the content of the lyrics flowing out over the instrumental jams, is poetry on top of poetry, with support of both passion and humor, pain and pathos with laughter and honky tonk.
Bring out your dead, the law is/coming and there’s nowhere left to/hide, big black shoes comin down,/Clean out from the inside, people/Been killed for what they made,/Taken on more than they can carry away/Somebody pushed me in a hurricane/cuz I can’t stand standing still./I’ve got a whole shitload of trouble/but I still ain’t had my fill./I’ve got sin covering my lies./Good God I’ve got nothing to hide.
“Bring out your dead,” Paul Hoffman said, in one of his numerous, weighty, dark lines, bulging with rock and roll, straddling the acoustic wells of bluegrass, bumping our imaginations and dropping something in the pocket there. Hoffman writes and sings lead on many of the songs, brings to each the proper gravity, grace, and give-it-up rambunction at the appropriate time Rocking, usually rocking back-and-forth himself at times.
They have some of the most intelligent lyrics you’ll find, while also covering an interesting range of popular songs with their own GB spin.
Tasty Lyrics in the Jam
They do have a tendency to pick some dark ones, but fun no less, like Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night/and they blew up his house too/Down on the boardwalk, they’re ready for a fight/gonna see what them racket boys can do/Now there’s trouble busing in, from outa state/and the D.A. can’t get no relief/Gonna be a rumble put on the promenade/and the gambling commissioners hanging on by the skin of their teeth/Everything dies baby that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back/Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty and/Meet me tonight, in Atlantic City
All of the band members bring great focus to the songs, always, throughout the long extent of play, usually two sets, tonight two sets until nearly twelve. Keeping that focus throughout as if at each moment, they had just stepped on stage. Those guys in the band are: Paul Hoffman, on mandolin and most lead vocals, Anders Beck on dobro, Dave Bruzza, on guitar and some lead vocals, Mike Devol on upright bass, and Michael Arlen Bont on banjo. Most of the players do some harmony and other vocals.
Opener a Keeper
Joining them after a few significantly long tunes was the opener, Joshua Davis. Davis, formerly a finalist in NBC’s “The Voice,” is a good ‘un, and an intimate with GB. They play with him often and do something like eight of his tunes. He joined them for two songs for this show, both of them lively and including expansive solo picking by the younger Joshua. They started with a rambunctious reiteration of the traditional “Stealin’”
They followed with the quirky “I’d Probably Kill You,” with the mind-twisting chorus, I want to be just like you but I can’t sing/You’re something I thought of first/You just didn’t make it/You ended up just like me/But so much better. This was followed by the verse, Can’t keep my hands on/The things I’ve learned off a long neck bottle/Why race in circles around the women I know/And the things I bought them/How I’d pay to someday find you/With your hands tied asking for something.
During Set 2, Davis was in the front rows of the crowd with, presumably, his girlfriend, happily urging the band on, singing along with all, and I mean all, the words, some of them his no doubt. She requested a tune (likely his), and Greensky changed gears to play it.
GB wants to create threater. They vary the sound, distortion pedals, etc. Big light show creates the feel of a large-scale production, yet feels appropriate to the gritty, balls-out, sometimes dark, often poignant, ballads mixed with rock musical agenda.
The crowd had a ball, filled most of the house and had a ball. Maybe got a little too drunk, I’m thinking, particularly with the long night they were given by the band. Norva staff handles it well at least. Behind me and at times on me, some dancing went on. I was a little surprised to find a very attractive young woman draping herself around me at one point, while at the same time saying something to her friend about how I’d better not touch her or something along those lines. No problem.
One Norva staff guy, I guess what we used to call “bouncer,” has always been especially kind and helpful to me, every time I come, making sure my neuropathy impediment doesn’t unduly hamper my experience. And, the staff in general has been gracious.
The show bore out the premise of a piece on the band I’d read advertising their show at the Jefferson in Charlottesville earlier this year, that being that they bring to the stage:
a collection of opposites, full of dark psychedelic swirls, bright bursts of acoustic guitar, soundscapes, solos, freethinking improvisation, and plenty of sharp, focused songwriting. It’s wild and wide ranging.
True that night, and this is a band that tours most of the year. I’m sure it’s the same most and possibly all of the many, many nights they spend on the road entertaining both the faithful and the newly initiated, for miles and miles of dynamic musical immersion and transformation.
Green Sky Blue Grass Bluegrass Rock and Roll Happiness Transformation