Through The Trees: A Weekend in the Pacific Northwest with Greensky Bluegrass 3.25 - 3.27.16
Words By Mitch Melheim
Photos By Coleman Schwartz & Scott Shrader (J. Scott Shrader Photography)
Pushing boundaries is a bit of an understatement when it comes to Greensky Bluegrass. Formed 16 years ago in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a city not necessarily known for its bluegrass tradition, it should come as no surprise to find out that Greensky Bluegrass isn’t as much of a bluegrass band as their name may suggest.
“In theory,” mandolinist Paul Hoffman explains on their website, “Greensky is the complete opposite of bluegrass. So, by definition, we are contrasting everything that isn’t bluegrass with everything that is.”
“We were always coming at bluegrass backwards,” Hoffman says. “We were better musicians than we were bluegrass musicians. We discovered that, when it came to learning these instruments, we preferred to do so by improvising and writing our own songs, instead playing standard material and fiddle tunes.”
The end result is what many consider to be the hardest rocking band currently playing music without the help of drums or electric instrumentation. Their ability to create percussion with acoustic instruments is unmatched. Inspired just as much by the Grateful Dead and Phish as any other bands, their improvisation is so good that you may even forget that they write some of the best songs in whichever genre you want to place them in.
Perhaps most noteworthy, with all of the wild things they do to such a traditional genre, they are still incredibly well-respected amongst the more traditional bluegrass fans. Starting with their 2006 victory in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s band competition, through their captivating performances these past few years at Del McCoury’s Del Fest, all the way to what has become a near takeover of Yonder Mountain String Band’s Northwest String Summit, where calling them a “fan favorite” only scratches the surface when explaining the love that Horning’s Hideout has for this band.
Accolades and takeovers are becoming very common for Greensky. This summer they will headline Red Rocks with jam grass legends and pioneers, Leftover Salmon, opening for them in Salmon’s home state. A couple weeks ago, the band had such an overwhelming request for tickets to their annual 3 night Bell’s Beer Garden opener in Kalamazoo, that they had to open up a lottery request period for fans to get tickets. Needless to say, more people requested tickets in the lottery than received them, leaving many fans searching for tickets. Sound Phamiliar? Very shortly after, it was announced that they are going to be gracing the cover of the upcoming issue of Pollstar as their “Hotstar” band.
It all started with camper Max Berde noticing that Sanders was scheduled to appear at Safeco Field the same day that Greensky was in town. After a few tweets and Facebook posts to judge interest proved worthwhile, he ran the idea past fellow camper Dan Zedonek, who got in contact with the local Sanders campaign office. Zedonek acted as liaison to the Sanders campaign further pushing this dream towards reality. The campaign office liked the idea of a progressive bluegrass band from Michigan, a recent Sanders victory state, playing the rally and decided to run the idea by the national organizers and asked Berde and Zedonek to get in contact with the band. It was at this point that they realized they had done all of this without even asking the band if they were interested first. Once contacted, the band’s first response was, “You’re joking, right?” but after eventually being convinced that this was in fact real life and a legitimate possibility, they jumped on board with the idea and soon there after, they were slated to play Safeco Field, opening up for Bernie Sanders. All of this happened within 48 hours of this crazy little idea popping into Berde’s head. Suddenly, the upcoming weekend run was probably no longer the biggest event of the weekend to the band.
Friday March 25, 2016:
Unable to get into Safeco Field in time due to a horribly long line and excruciatingly slow searches from Secret Service at the gates, we chose to go back to a friend’s house and stream the set from there. We all racked our brains trying to figure out what they might play during such an important set considering their exposure to so many new fans with the only given being “Burn Them” which Greensky fans have unofficially adopted as their own Bernie Sanders campaign song, going so far as to create shirts that say “Bern Them” on the front with the lyrics from the song, “Let’s rob some worse guys done up like the good ones” fittingly displayed across the back.
At this point, things got a little more interesting. Advertised headliner John Popper made his way onto the stage with Greensky staying out there as his backing band, helping him through two outstanding renditions of Popper’s Blues Traveler hits, “Run Around” and “Hook.” Popper then played the “Star Spangled Banner” as a harmonica solo after “Hook,” ending a great preview set for the weekend that surely initiated some new Greensky Bluegrass fans in the Safeco Field crowd or “Greenski Bluegrass,” as Sanders mistakenly referred to them as.
Immediately after their set at the rally, we all made our way down to the Showbox Market to catch the opening band, talented Portland sister-act Shook Twins. The Shook Twins are led by multi-instrumentalist sisters Katelyn Shook and Laurie Shook. Katelyn plays the guitar, ukulele, glockenspiel, and mandolin as well as lending her beautiful vocals while Laurie plays a crucial role in what makes this band so unique, playing the banjo, guitar, bass, ocarina, and djembe, as well providing vocals, beatboxing, and looping. Adding further to the diversity and flexibility of this band is bassist Josh Simon and Niko Daoussis who plays mandolin, electric guitar, drums, and bass, while adding also vocals.
The best way that I can describe the Shook Twins is that they have the sister power and chemistry of Rising Appalachia combined with the dynamics and beauty of Elephant Revival. They happen to be a lot easier of a band to dance to than both of those bands and don’t always take themselves as seriously as them, which is a great thing. While they have very meaningful and serious songs that could be interchangeable with the material of their friends and frequent collaborators, Elephant Revival, they also know how to let loose and have fun, even working occasional hip-hop and old R&B covers into their sets. For example, my first time seeing them included a beatbox mash up of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” with Lauryn Hill’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low.”
Very shortly after, it was time for the headliners, Greensky Bluegrass. Clearly still beaming from ear to ear after a special afternoon, they picked up right where Popper left them, with a little bit of American pride. Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re An American Band” opened up the night with Lighting Director Andrew Lincoln’s red, white, and blue lights accentuating the message. Always clever with the lyric changes, Hoffman changed the opening line to “last night in Canada put me in a haze” referencing their previous night in Vancouver, B.C. as well as changing the lyrics in the second verse accordingly from Saturday to Friday night. As you know by now and as expressed by the opening song choice, this band isn’t one for respecting genre boundaries but they do show respect to their home state boundaries, covering a fellow Michigan band to start the night.
Next up and sticking with the patriotic theme was the unofficial Greensky Bluegrass Bernie Sanders campaign song “Burn Them” drawing a “Bernie” chant as the song ended, with another signature Hoffman tune “Rafters” from their album Five Interstates following that.
Another Five Interstates song and Hoffman staple “Old Barns” was next before legendary Blues Traveler harmonica talent John Popper snuck up on stage with them for the second time of the day to lend his talents to two covers. The first was the Grateful Dead’s “Mr. Charlie” which included an exceptional harmonica solo from Popper that was met with a huge roar from the crowd. It was a real treat watching Popper’s interplay with Anders Beck’s dobro, who was visibly stoked to be playing with Popper.
The second song with Popper was a cover of his Blues Traveler hit, “Hook” and boy, was it a fun one. Led by what are still outstanding vocals from Popper and another impressive harmonica solo, it became pretty apparent that we were watching a band have a very special night. Hoffman’s huge grin on his face as he lip-synched all of the words to Popper’s rap verse solidified that belief for me.
Next up and now Popper-less, they broke into fan favorite and Norton Buffalo classic “Ain’t no Bread in the Breadbox”. This is one of those Greensky songs where you brace yourself once you hear the opening notes because you know you’re in for a long and eventful jam. As usual, “Breadbox” did not disappoint, building up to an even more intense peak than usual before coming to a close with the catchy chorus we all love.
Finally, we get our first Bruzza original to close the set with a whopping version of “Kerosene.” Always an overwhelmingly dark song and extended jam, this one shined bright as one of my favorite versions of “Kerosene” I’ve ever seen. It’s unreal how loud and powerful this string band can get and this song is one of the best examples of that.
Hoffman’s “Just to Lie” opened the second set before breaking into a slow and eerie funk jam loosely based off of “Just to Lie” that included clever wordplay on his lyrics “I told you” sang in the style of Fruition’s “Labor of Love.” “Labor of Love” interestingly enough, was written about a time that Fruition helped Greensky when they had some bus trouble while touring together. Hoffman then tells us, “I told you… We were gonna have a good time tonight,” as he invites Seattle sax-master Skerik Skerik onto the stage to begin what was quite the musical journey.
Jumping immediately into an even funkier jam accented by Beck’s dobro, Skerik gets right to business. Hoffman then comes in with more improv lyrics from sections of “Just to Lie” while things get even more eerie and weird, just the way they like it.
After “Just to Lie’ comes the instrumental track “Tarpology.” This is my absolute favorite Greensky song (originally a song from Beck’s old band, Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band) to see live so needless to say, with Skerik up there as well, I was ecstatic. As soon as the swirling funk of that modulated guitar riff hits, I lose my mind every time. The improv section of “Tarpology” this time began with a stop-time jam with some call and response between the band and Skerik before Hoffman takes off on a mandolin jam that's brought back by Beck’s funky dobro as one by one, the rest of the musicians on stage add on to the jam before it climaxes in the trademark swirling funk riff of “Tarpology.”
Once again, they get straight to business heading immediately into a funky section of improv jamming before Beck’s dobro decides its time to take over the jam, which is fine by me and everybody else in attendance. Coming to a close with the more traditionally acoustic introduction section of “Tarpology,” the Tarp-Boots sandwich clocks in at just over 23 minutes before one more Fruition vocal tease in between songs.
Bruzza’s “I’d Probably Kill You” from their 2011 album Handgunscame after a jam that seemed impossible to follow up, or at least I thought so. That was until I heard Skerik’s saxophone give this song a new sound that I’ve never heard before and I loved it. This is one of those Bruzza songs that is the perfect contrast to Hoffman’s vocals and lyrics and can be a necessary change of pace at times.
Back to Hoffman for the next song, “Demons.” A beautiful yet sad song, this is one of those tunes that you’re happy to see pop up at any point in the setlist and it always seems to fit perfectly. After staying quiet for awhile, Skerik comes through for one more tremendous solo before finally exiting the stage in what may be the best sit in I’ve ever seen with Greensky. The fearlessness with their improvisation allowed all of the artists to push themselves to areas that they don’t typically get to explore.
Following up the Skerik sit in was Bruzza’s take on the traditional bluegrass tune, “Down The Road.” A nice change of pace to remind us that we are indeed supposed at a bluegrass show.
The pretty instrumental “33443” which coincidentally clocked in at the 3:43 mark was next as it led into companion piece and Bruzza song “Wings For Wheels.” Always short and sweet, this version of “Wings For Wheels” hit the spot as it allowed us to regain our breath and sing along before heading into what was sure to be a monstrous set closer.
Monstrous, it was. Hoffman’s “Leap Year,” a fan favorite and also personal favorite closed the set. “How can one more day make a year so long?” Hoffman sings during what happens to be a leap year. Bruzza’s guitar improvisation was the clear stand out of the song, although Beck more than made his presence known. The great thing about this song is that even after a huge section of amazing improvisation, the best part is still yet to come. The fan chant and eventual call and response followed by some of my favorite Greensky lyrics and a powerful outro goes down as my favorite part of this song.
The crowd does the chant from “Leap Year” during the encore before Anders comes out with some banter about how we need to all get to sleep early so we can caucus for Bernie in the morning. Fittingly, they then played J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” to close out the night. I’ll never complain about any band closing a show with this song.
Set One: We’re An American Band, Burn Them %, Rafters, Old Barns, Mr. Charlie*, Hook*, Ain’t No Bread In The Breadbox, Great Atomic Power, Kerosene
Set Two: Just To Lie #, Tarpology > # Gumboots > # Tarpology #, I’d Probably Kill You #, Demons #, Down The Road, 33443, Wings For Wheels, Leap Year
Encore: After Midnight %
(*) With John Popper on vocals and harmonica
(#) With Skerik on Sax
(%) With Keith Kinnear on Tambourine Shake
The next morning, after returning to the Showbox Market to pick up our faces, we took off on the long trip to Eugene, Oregon. The only problem with following a band on tour in the Pacific Northwest is how far apart all of the tour stops are. The beauty along the way more than makes up for it, but the travel time can become a bit of a hassle. It changes your mindset while touring because instead of enjoying yourself all night and partying after the show, you have to keep in mind that you’ve got a 300 mile drive in the morning to get to the next stop. Believe me, one tour gone wrong with too much partying and you learn your lesson. With that in mind, we took it easy in Seattle and were rewarded for it in the morning with a smooth-sailing five hour drive down I-5 to Eugene.
Scott's Photo Gallery
Saturday March 26, 2016:
Eugene also has one of my favorite venues to see a show at, the McDonald Theatre. Run by the family of the late counterculture icon, famed author, and Merry Pranksters leader Ken Kesey, this theatre does an outstanding job of preserving the values of the 1960’s hippie counterculture and you would be hard pressed to ever come across more pleasant security and venue staff.
We entered the McDonald Theatre while the Shook Twins were already playing so I made sure to get down to the floor immediately to soak in as much of the Shookies’ set as I could. From what I saw, the highlight of the set was their dance-y cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” I am a huge fan of the way they mesh together genres that one would typically think have no business being together, like folk with rap or their willingness to add electronic elements to such an organic sound. I can’t stress enough how important it is to check these guys out if you’re unfamiliar with them because of how well they’re able to weave together diverse sounds that can make a fan out of the most unsuspecting person.
“Good evening,” Hoffman says as Greensky walks out on to the stage. His traditional introduction has been something I’ve been starting to pay attention to and by my count, he opened all three show over the weekend with his standard “Good evening” greeting.
Sure enough, new song “Living Over” followed. What can I say about this song? After only a few months in rotation, it has clearly become a new fan favorite. Hoffman’s lyrics about the every day fight for your life are outstanding but are rivaled in attention by his magnificent mandolin work in the song, similar to the emotionally charged instrumentation in the “All Four” jams. Anders Beck’s dobro takes the jam to the next level as this song has become their newest home run hitter.
They slowed it down a bit with Hoffman’s “Against the Days” before picking the tempo back up with Bruzza’s take on the Stanley Brothers’ “How Mountain Girls Can Love.” This is a very fun bluegrass song that makes you want to dance at an uncontrollable pace.
As “All Four” ends, a new microphone is brought on stage and Hoffman and Beck begin to banter about what that could possibly be for. All of a sudden Mimi Naja of Fruition appears on stage to chants of “Mimi! Mimi!” from the crowd. She lent her beautiful voice and outstanding talent on the mandolin to the final two songs of the set.
The first of which was a terrific soulful cover of Fruition’s “Santa Fe.” Things got turned up a notch after that as they began the old traditional “Reuben’s Train.” Always a fun jam, this version of “Reuben’s” excelled above the rest with a bit of mandolin madness from Naja and Hoffman. It's so fun watching these two play together because there is such pure joy emitting from their faces. They have an on-stage love for one another that is extremely obvious and even more contagious. Naja also added some soulful harmonies to Bruzza’s deep vocals that made for a delightfully unique sounding version of the song.
The eerie and haunting sounds that followed could only mean one thing, it was time to “Bring Out Your Dead.” This song, rich with both instrumental and vocal effects, is about as far from bluegrass as you can get and one of the songs that so distantly separates Greensky from their jam-grass contemporaries. This is a rock n’ roll song, through and through.
A cover of the supergroup Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle With Care” followed and this was a really fun one. Lasting over 13 minutes, the fun never seemed to end, continuing to reach new areas of improvisation until finally coming back into the song for one final chorus. Then came the fun, ever-changing, and somewhat nonsensical tune, “For Sure, Uh Huh.” In this song, Beck will typically engage Hoffman in some sort of conversation that requires him to answer with either "yes" or "no," essentially the only lyrics in the song. Eugene’s topic was whether or not Hoffman was having fun, which he indeed was.
Another fun one came next, Bruzza’s take on Jimmy Martin’s “Hit Parade of Love.” One thing that I love about this band is how they throw these old bluegrass covers into the middle of a bunch of non-bluegrass songs and it causes you to feel the need to take advantage of the fast tempo and dance as hard as you can. That’s a dynamic that some bluegrass bands lack. Afterwards, they slowed it down a bit with Hoffman’s “Forget Everything.” I enjoy this song a lot and don’t seem to hear it live as much as I would like.
Preceding “Broke Mountain Breakdown” was Beck’s usual banter about the song that is all completely untrue (Sorry Anders). He typically will say he just wrote the song that day or have some other wacky story about the origins of the song. The great thing is that after years of doing this, most people still fall for it and think it is in fact a newly written song since it’s all instrumental, but make no mistake, the die hards know exactly what he’s getting at as soon as he starts telling the crowd about “this new song he just wrote.” As a personal favorite of mine, I’m happy to hear Beck tell me whatever crazy stories he would like as long as he keeps playing this song. This version of “Broke Mountain Breakdown” was described as a new song being played for the first time, co-written by Beck and infamous Greensky superfan, Max Berde, at the baseball field the night before in Seattle. “He selfishly named it after himself,” Beck explains before introducing the song as the “Max Berde Breakdown.”
I mentioned “Bring Out Your Dead” earlier as being one of the songs that sets them apart from their contemporaries, and this is another one. If I could pick just one song to show somebody what makes Greensky so awesome and unique, it would be “Broke Mountain Breakdown”. From the picking at the beginning of the song to the dirty funk it develops into, if you can’t get into this song then Greensky Bluegrass probably isn’t for you.
The band then brought rapidly rising pianist Holly Bowling out for the last couple songs. Hoffman and Beck were on Jam Cruise this year with Bowling and there is even some awesome footage of them performing “2001” with the Werks floating somewhere around the internet.
The first song they played was “The Four” with Hoffman changing the lyrics to “I forgot about the six of us” to reflect the sixth member on stage. As “The Four” was ending, they segued into a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Eyes of the World.” A Grateful Dead cover is almost required when playing in Eugene, especially at Kesey’s venue. This is probably my favorite of their Dead covers and this version was even better than most with Bowling lending a beautiful solo to the 10+ minute jam that at one point gave us a full band “First Tube” Phish tease.
Bowling was brought back out again for the encore which was Hoffman’s fun song “Frederico.” This song asks “Who is Frederico?” and at one point, Hoffman pointed to a girl on someone’s shoulders in the audience to find out if she was, in fact, Frederico. She claimed she was so the lyrics were changed accordingly.
Set Two: Fixin’ to Ruin, Take Cover, Before Bring Out Your Dead > Bring Out Your Dead, Handle with Care, For Sure Uh Huh, Hit Parade of Love, Forget Everything, Broke Mountain Breakdown %, The Four ^ > Eyes of the World ^
Encore: Who is Frederico? ^!
(*) w/ Mimi Naja on mandolin and vocals
(#) First time played
(%) aka ‘The Max Berde Breakdown’
(^) w/ Holly Bowling on keys (!) w/ Keith Kinnear on vibraslap
Afterwards, while everybody was heading off to those famed Eugene after parties, my photographer and I decided it would be best to head back to my house in Portland to cut down the next morning’s drive to Spokane from 7 hours to 5. We know too well by now that if you stay in Eugene after a show, you’re not going to be sleeping that night.
We woke up Sunday morning feeling rejuvenated and ready to celebrate Easter with Greensky Bluegrass. Due to the remote location of Spokane, and the fact that it was an Easter Sunday show, we knew that this would be a “Pro Bowl” of sorts with only the most dedicated fans making it out to the Knitting Factory. The phrase “Never miss a Sunday show” ran through my head repeatedly as motivation for the long drive through the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge into the hills of Eastern Washington.
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Sunday March 27, 2016:
The Knitting Factory
After a long drive with a couple mishaps along the way, we unfortunately missed the Shook Twins set and walked in just seconds before Greensky began their cover of John Hartford’s “I’m Still Here” to open the show. Always fun hearing them cover Hartford, this was no different. Another cover was next, this time the gospel song “Jesus on the Mainline,” fitting for Easter Sunday. The religious theme continued afterwards with Hoffman’s “Reverend.” “Reverend” is one of my favorite Greensky songs lyrically and they don’t do much to change it up live and that’s perfectly fine by me. Not every song needs to be jammed out and those dynamics are another thing I really enjoy about this band.
Bruzza’s “Worried About the Weather” was next and man, oh man, it was a heater. One of the loudest songs of the weekend, it included some incredible interplay between Hoffman’s mandolin and Beck’s dobro. Segueing directly into Hoffman’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” made this the highlight of the night. “Atlantic City” is arguably their best cover which is saying something for a band that regularly covers five or more songs per show. For that reason, it is always a crowd pleaser as well.
Next, was a very eerie and spacey intro filled with bass and in my head I figured it had to be “Bring Out Your Dead” again, but was convinced not because it would be the first repeat of the weekend. Then I thought about the obvious Easter connotations and sure enough, the heavy “Bring Out Your Dead” began.
Afterwards was another repeat and obvious exception on Easter Sunday, “Living Over.” We all know the love for this song by now, but let me reiterate on just how great this song is and that I am okay with hearing it as many times as they would like to play it. This was another scorching version to close the set that got so intense that Hoffman even lost his Easter bunny ears off his head for the first time in the show. Get to know this song if you aren’t already familiar.
Set two opened with another logical song in what had been a very logical Easter Sunday setlist thus far, Hoffman’s “What’s Left of the Night.” Another Hoffman song and old school favorite “Less Than Supper” followed before things got a little wild.
Bont’s banjo introduction to Bruzza’s “Freeborn Man” was exceptional and then suddenly they were breaking into a full band extended tease of J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine” with the word “cocaine” changed to “Spokane,” an homage to a 1996 Phish show in Spokane where they did the same. They then jumped right back into “Freeborn Man” as Beck unloaded tease after tease upon us, most notably another “Cocaine” tease and a couple of “Reuben’s Train” teases.
Some more fantastic interplay between Hoffman and Beck as well as another extremely funky jam led me to marking down in my notes at this point that they are “the funkiest bluegrass band on the planet” and while a bit of an oxymoron, it’s hard to disagree with.
An always fun cover of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” followed before the goofy and equally fun interlude “Hots Dogs (On Parade)” led us into another version of “I’d Probably Kill You.” I struggled trying to figure out why this was repeated since it doesn’t seem to be an Easter exception, but based off of the banter before “Hot Dogs” it seemed that this had been a requested song by somebody who could only make the Spokane show.
The gospel tune and Bill Monroe cover “Crying Holy Unto the Lord” was next before a huge “Don’t Lie” appeared to close the second set. The intro to “Don’t Lie” began and led into a couple of hefty “Foxy Lady” teases by Beck with even the Lighting Designer Andrew Lincoln getting in on the tease by blasting the intense red and white light setting he uses for “Foxy Lady” during Beck’s teases.
Eventually, the “Foxy Lady” teases gave way to a full performance of the song with Hoffman on vocals and Beck’s loud dobro before diving straight back into “Don’t Lie” and picking up right where they had left off. On a normal night, I’d be happy with either of these songs closing a set so to get that full “Don’t Lie” after “Foxy Lady” was a true treat and I made sure to soak it all in. “Don’t Lie” is a very emotional song with room for ample improvisation that has become a popular set closer amongst both the band and fans alike.
As the band comes back out for the encore they give us one last dose of their classic, almost always false, banter. They had mentioned earlier in the show at the end of the first set that they had hidden easter eggs around the venue with special prizes in them. I knew that this was just a joke to make people look dumb while looking around the venue for easter eggs at set break and the funny thing is that it actually worked. Just before they began the encore, Hoffman says to keep an eye out for the egg with $500 in it. “I hid it real good,” he chuckles.
Jimmy Martin’s “Drink Up and Go Home” was the choice for encore song and a perfect choice it was. I tend to be one of the people that prefers an upbeat encore over a slow one, but it's hard to argue against this song being a perfect fit to end a show. I made my way to the rail one last time for this one to truly soak in the last few minutes of music and reflect on what an amazing weekend it had been.
Set One: I'm Still Here, Jesus on the Mainline, Reverend, Worried About the Weather, Atlantic City, Send Me Your Address From Heaven, Tuesday Letter, Before Bring Out Your Dead > Bring Out Your Dead, Living Over
Set Two: What's Left of the Night, Less Than Supper, Freeborn Man > Cocaine tease > Freeborn Man, Money for Nothing, Hot Dogs (On Parade), I'd Probably Kill You, Crying Holy Unto the Lord, Don't Lie > Foxy Lady > Don’t Lie
Encore: Drink Up and Go Home
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