With the disco ball spinning refractions from above, the bluegrass band onstage sounded like an alien mothership landing in the middle of the Beachland Ballroom. Back in November, the last time the guys from Greensky Bluegrass came to Cleveland, whole galaxies shifted. The band was wrapping up the first set of the night, and this climactic jam was unfolding with absolute mind-melting strings work. In short, it was a goddam impressive show.
"Yeah, I know what you're talking about — like at the end where we sort of deconstruct the jam. Nobody's ever told me it sounded like a spaceship." Bassist Mike Devol is phoning in from the road. The band's off to a busy 2014, but they've stashed away that most recent Cleveland show for future listening. "The imagery that we discussed for our musical approach to that was kinda like this gypsy waltz band that's sort of falling apart — a lot of tension and dissonance. The band Ween came up a lot when we talked about it."
Bear in mind that this is, at least on the surface, a bluegrass band we're discussing here.
Thing is though, Greensky Bluegrass wanders far beyond the typical borders of its namesake genre. The band — Dave Bruzza (guitar), Anders Beck (dobro), Mike Bont (banjo), Paul Hoffman (mandolin) and Devol on upright bass — has assumed the unique role of being a mainstay in all sorts of scenes: jam, bluegrass, indie, etc.
It's been that way from the beginning.
"We figured we'd be ourselves. The ways that we don't naturally find ourselves being a traditional Nashville or North Carolina bluegrass band, well, that kind of unconsciously set us apart a bit," Devol says.
Another major tour is under way now, leading to the band's impending new album. The self-produced follow-up to 2011's Handguns promises more of Greensky's wayfaring songcraft.
There's no firm timetable for the album's release; Devol says it'll land in the late-winter/early-spring months at the earliest. Expect to catch a few new tunes in Friday's set list.
Since kicking off the recording process in early 2013, patience has been a noted element of this new album. And while the band's live shows are one thing, their studio albums showcase an entirely different side to their music. A quick comparison between Handguns and, say, the band's gig in Cleveland last fall will underscore as much.
"We approach it like it's a different project than playing live. We have all these tools and the opportunity to do things over and experiment and try new things and take a lot of time in creating a new piece," Devol says. "We've decided not to try to emulate our live performance in the studio too much — and also not to be a studio band when we're onstage."
Here's how the guys get down and write music: Hoffman will often cook up a song structure on guitar before bringing it to the band. Then, everyone will build the arrangement as a group (with Hoffman jumping back on his mandolin). The central idea is to maintain compositions' nebulous character for a few days during the recording process. Gelatinous structures coalesce in the studio and, as Devol describes it, leave behind an imprint of what the band was like at a particular point in time.
"You have this almost spontaneous sort of energy as a piece comes together," he says. "And then it's funny to spend a year afterward mixing it and polishing it and listening to it. It's a good experience."
On the other side of the coin, Greensky Bluegrass follows an entirely different path of experimentation when performing live. In many ways, the band adopts the classic jam band ethos of in-the-moment improvisation, varied set lists, and deep, multifaceted communication among musicians.
Devol says on some level the band members are all products of the communities surrounding the likes of Phish and the Grateful Dead — influences that are certainly audible. Of course, the band is its own beast entirely.
While the musicians have grown up alongside the resurgence of bluegrass as a somewhat mainstream genre ("Americana," if you will), they blend progressive motifs and traditional compositional structures in ways that most contemporaries can't touch.
From the early days in Kalamazoo, Mich., the artists in Greensky have put in the time to hone their signature sound and give back to the jam-friendly community that spawned them.
"We've grown a lot in just knowing each other as musicians and listening to each other as musicians. It's hard to describe these sort of non-verbal, totally musical clues that you learn from your bandmates just by knowing how they play," Devol says. "There's a lot we can all tell about each other and where we're heading with a line."
To the uninitiated, a five-piece bluegrass band might sound like an overwhelming assault of strings. But it's really enticing to watch the band morph throughout a performance. Of course, at various points there will be solos that arc across the other four guys' foundational melody. And there will be little duels between two musicians — examples of that unspoken communication that push the jam into different territory.
Each musician is a thrill to focus on at various points in a show. Bont's greased-lightning banjo pickin' is spellbinding. And, typically balancing out Bont on the other side of the stage, Beck's head-bobbing dobro mania essentially reinvents the term "slide guitar" every time he fires up a riff. The trick is always to snag a spot up close at Greensky gigs and settle in for a kaleidoscopic trip through the wonders of nickel-wound string.
Taken in sum, the music is full bodied. No one really dominates the playing, ensuring that the band really does come off like, you know, a complete band. To be able to dish ideas back and forth requires the fine-tuning of years of practice and experience. It's almost orchestral the way the strings blend as one.
And as a song begins to really take off, there's no telling what lies around the next riff.
"We'll be playing a piece for years — like one of our big staple jam tunes during a set — and something entirely new will happen that's never occurred. I think that's because of our willingness to accept that that might happen — that that can still happen," Devol says.
"You can make something cool for that audience that only that audience is gonna get," he continues. "And that's one reason to love a jam band."