Greensky Bluegrass 12.1 - 12.3.16
The Ogden Theatre
Words By Mitch Melheim
Photos By Nancy Isaac & Doug Fondriest
Landing directly between the weekend prior’s hometown throw-down in Kalamazoo, Michigan and the next weekend’s trip to Bluegrass paradise for Strings & Sol, was a three-night run at Denver’s Ogden Theatre that could’ve easily fallen into the shadows, but instead thrived off of the energy and excitement surrounding it. New covers, rare originals, and exploratory jams ruled the weekend as Greensky Bluegrass continues to top themselves and seem to thoroughly enjoy the process of doing so.
Thursday, December 1:
Greensky opened up the weekend with the heavy-hitting fan-favorite “Don’t Lie” and the seventeen minutes that followed made sure to let everyone in attendance know that this run was not to be taken lightly, sort of like the musical equivalent of your car beeping at you to put your seatbelt on. It was time to strap in.
“While Waiting” off of their recently released album Shouted, Written Down, and Quoted came next and allowed the crowd to catch their breath a bit before the gospel classic “Jesus On The Mainline” had everybody moving again.
Gipsy Moon’s Silas Herman was invited onto the stage next and dubbed, “one of the best mandolin players alive,” by Greensky mandolinist Paul Hoffman. Their funky version of the traditional “Working On A Building” was short, but sweet as was the “Burn Them” that followed, proving sit-ins can be efficient, believe it or not, as Herman still managed to impress anyone that didn’t catch his opening set. The highlight of his appearance was his duel with Hoffman during “Working On A Building,” although the unique latin-inspired sound he added to “Burn Them” was a close second. It’s extremely refreshing to hear a mandolinist explore rhythms you don’t typically get to hear in Bluegrass and that’s one thing you can usually count on with Silas Herman.
After a quick set break, the underplayed treat “Grow Bananas” followed before another rarity, this time the instrumental “Roberta” was played for a birthday girl not named Roberta, but Maggie. Happy belated Maggie.
A blazing cover of New Grass Revival’s oft-covered “Can’t Stop Now” followed and became one of the highlights of the show when during the “breakdown” section of the song, Hoffman teased some lyrics from Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” which led to the band slowing down to a reggae-esque tempo and eventually debuting the Petty cover before speeding up and segueing back into “Can’t Stop Now” which contained plenty more “Breakdown” teases.
Hoffman’s “Can’t Make Time” was next and continued the trend of rare songs as this one is so rarely played that it was used as his excuse for badly butchering the lyrics, which the crowd loved. A humbled Hoffman apologized after the song and suggested, “maybe we’ll try it again tomorrow,” to which dobro player Anders Beck joked, “And if you fuck it up tomorrow, there’s always the next day!”
Guitarist Dave Bruzza’s “Freeborn Man” followed and featured a hefty amount of improvisation as well as a miniature heavy metal demonstration from Beck in the beginning. Michael Arlen Bont’s banjo ripped this song up and down. I’ve always used him as sort of a measuring stick for the band. If Bont is hot, the band is on fire.
The band then segued into “The Four,” a twangy song off of their 2014 album If Sorrows Swim and then the quirky new Bruzza tune “Take Cover.” A long, jammed-out take of Bruce Hornsby’s “King Of The Hill” followed and provided some of the more exploratory improvisation of the night.
The band’s most popular song “Windshield” closed out the second set and left me pleasantly surprised. Closing a second set with a slow song is typically a pet peeve of mine, but the gregarious feeling of singing along at the top of your lungs with 1,600 other Campers (as the Greensky Bluegrass fanbase is referred to) is a wonderful feeling that gives “Windshield” a “hall pass” as a set closer.
After an encore break, the band came out for a mulligan of the previously played “Can’t Make Time” which went swimmingly this time around. A cover of Dire Straits’s “Money For Nothing” closed out the encore. While not necessarily a song I yearn for, it is always fun and satisfying as an encore closer.
Set Two: Grow Bananas, Roberta, Can’t Stop Now > Breakdown > Can’t Stop Now, Can’t Make Time, Freeborn Man > The Four, Take Cover, King Of The Hill, Windshield
Encore: Can’t Make Time , Money For Nothing
*with Silas Herman
Friday, December 2:
After filling my face with Torchy’s Tacos, I made my way back to the Ogden Theatre for night two. A fantastic venue in theory, the Ogden begins to suffer tremendously when the crowds get larger. Night one was sold out just like the other two nights, but there was a bit of dancing room left. On Friday and Saturday though, you had to fight for every inch that you had. I showed up just twenty minutes after doors had opened to find an already crowded balcony. These people knew what they were doing. I was going to have to search elsewhere and try again earlier the next day. A buddy and I eventually settled down on the floor, squished between some drunk folks, but the pleasant kind; for the most part.
Greensky opened night two with “Merely Avoiding,” a break up song off of the new album built upon a mixture of blunt honesty and common sense, Paul Hoffman trademarks. Beck’s instrumental tune “Broke Mountain Breakdown” followed and brought with it early energy and a phenomenal jam that pushed past it’s typical funky filling into a spacey expedition, culminating in a Rock-n-Roll peak that segued into an unexpected cover of Joe Walsh’s “Walk Away” and then Bruzza’s “Wings For Wheels.”
Next up was another Bruzza-led tune, this time the fast and fun Jimmy Martin cover “Hit Parade of Love.” I can’t explain why I like this song so much, I can only reiterate how fun of a song it is to see live. Afterwards, the band slowed it down, very literally, with a downtempo ska first verse in “Fixin’ To Ruin” before finishing it out the normal way. Once finished, Hoffman joked that the ska version can be found if you listen to the album backwards (after buying it from their merch booth and smoking legal recreational marijuana) and then busted into an even more exaggerated ska version of the song.
The band then invited the Infamous Stringdusters’ Andy Hall onto the stage to play some dobro. While he was getting set up, Hoffman let it slip that Greensky would be playing Red Rocks again in 2017, referencing his initial fear and ensuing joy that he felt after selling out Red Rocks earlier this year with Leftover Salmon.
The first song for the double dobro set-up was the dark and heavy “Worried About The Weather.” The plot of this song is great as it starts out fairly happy, progressively getting darker and darker until that final jam rolls around and the evil peaks. Getting the opportunity to hear Beck and Hall play off of each other was a treat for a twang-junkie like myself. Hall stayed out for the set closing cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” ending some quieter but equally appreciated accompaniment to the song.
Hoffman’s “Demons” opened the second set, followed by the beloved Bruzza tune “200 Miles From Montana.” Afterwards another guest was invited to this stage, this one of legendary status. Hot Rize bassist Nick Forster, co-host of NPR’s eTown program which Greensky had appeared on earlier in the week arrived on stage to play electric guitar.
The first song Forster appeared on was the rare Nathan Moore cover “Catch Me A Jesus.” Like many others, this song sat near the top of my “yet-to-see” list and I was ecstatic to hear it played, with Nick Forster nonetheless. Forster’s guitar tone added some atmospheric texture to the eerie tune and the song eventually culminated in him, Beck, and Bruzza each momentarily displaying their chops.
Next up was “Living Over,” a monstrous song that has settled its way deep into the hearts of many Campers just months after its debut. Often used as a set closer, getting a mid-set “Living Over” jam was a sure sign that nothing was to be taken lightly from there on out.
Another song off of the new album came next, this time “Room Without A Roof,” followed by the brutally honest (even by Hoffman standards) “Just To Lie.” The “turn for the worst” so to speak that this song takes at the end has become one of my favorites and typically brings upon a great segue. Recently, Hoffman has been cleverly filling the spacey ending of this song with Fruition vocal teases that actually come in the form of lyrics that are already in “Just To Lie.”
The song’s streak of satisfaction continued for me again, segueing into the dark and hopeless “Bottle Dry.” The perfect song to follow its predecessor, “Bottle Dry” is a great example of how well this supposed bluegrass band can play in space, both vocally and instrumentally.
The encore choice was another cover of one of their contemporaries, this time Rayland Baxter’s “Yellow Eyes.” Inevitably reminded of the Fruition teases and Nathan Moore cover from earlier, I thought to myself about how refreshing it is to be apart of a music scene in which everybody shows so much support for one another.
Set One: Merely Avoiding, Broke Mountain Breakdown > Walk Away > Wings For Wheels, Hit Parade Of Love, Fixin’ To Ruin, No Idea, How Mountain Girls Can Love, Worried About The Weather*, Atlantic City*
Set Two: Demons, 200 Miles From Montana, Catch Me A Jesus#, Climbing A Mountain#, Living Over, Room Without A Roof, Just To Lie > Bottle Dry > Kerosene
Encore: Yellow Eyes
* with Andy Hall
# with Nick Forster
Saturday, December 3:
We arrived at the venue earlier than the night prior, but again to an already-packed balcony. After both agreeing that we weren’t too stoked with where we were on the floor the night before, we decided to post up somewhere in the balcony and progressively move inwards until we were where we wanted to be. Survival of the fittest.
Austin, Texas’s Wood & Wire opened up night three and played perhaps the best opening set of the weekend. They appear to be traditional Bluegrass at first glance, but possess many progressive qualities as well as exceptional talent at all four instruments. Formed just six years ago, I suggest keeping an eye on this band as they have both the songwriting talent and instrumental ability to become a force amongst string bands for the foreseeable future. Their songs “Mexico” and “Dancin’ On My Grave” were my favorites from the set and are a good place to begin checking the band out if you’re unfamiliar with them.
Still flying high from a great opening set, I about flew through the roof when Greensky opened with their debut of Phish’s “Chalkdust Torture.” Beck, once a Phish tour kid himself, wore a mock Donald Trump hat with the words “MAKE PHISH EVIL AGAIN” as he got to do just that during his chance at being Trey Anadobro.
“Blood Sucking F(r)iends” another sarcastic Bruzza tune was next and led into a mesmerizing seventeen-minute “All Four” that dropped jaws, shed tears, and bumped geese. Every member gets a chance to shine on this jam, but it’s typically Bont’s banjo and Hoffman’s mandolin that push this song past killer jam into a spiritual experience. As I’ve said in a past review, if I had the choice I would gladly roam around some type of Greensky Bluegrass purgatory, lost inside of an “All Four” jam for the rest of eternity.
The pace was sped back up for “A Letter To Seymour” that led directly into another tearjerker, this time the Hoffman song “In Control.” Afterwards, the band broke into a reggae groove that led many to believe “For Sure Uh Huh” was coming, but once Hoffman began speaking over the chords, it became apparent what song was coming.
“Dear Max… Spirit like racecar… Pace like dragon… I am an engineer,” Hoffman joked over the introduction in reference to Greensky superfan Max Berde’s birthday. “It’s a Max, not a hatchet,” he hinted one more time before breaking into Bob Marley’s “Small Axe” which with a birthday banner and confetti explosion was a full-blown birthday party inside of a concert. Luckily Berde has a commendable taste in music and his birthday song was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone in attendance.
The fairly rare and rather unique “Just Listening” opened the second set and led into what was honestly one of the best versions of “Leap Year” I’ve ever seen. Tight and aggressive, this jam set the tone for what became the best set of the weekend. After an extended break to let the roars of post-jam rowdiness die down, the band invited Dave Carroll and Dave Simonett of Trampled By Turtles onto the stage and suddenly there were three Daves.
The Daves stayed out for two songs, the first of which being the goofy and nonsensical, yet somehow literal “For Sure Uh Huh” and the second being Trampled’s “Victory,” a surprise of what I’ll exaggerate to call epic proportions for those in the audience familiar with Trampled By Turtles.
Their first choice was solid to say the least, sandwiching “Reuben’s Train” inside of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care.” The Wilburys’ cover has become one of my favorites of theirs and always comes with a hefty mid-section. This time it expanded even further to include “Reuben’s Train” and an abnormally heavy jam led by Beck’s dobro and accented by lighting designer extraordinaire Andrew Lincoln’s unique use of a disco ball on the stage floor.
Lincoln does not get enough credit for his work with Greensky. Having recently seen a lot of the more popular LD’s in the jam scene (Phish’s Chris Kuroda, STS9’s Saxton Waller, Umphrey’s McGee’s Jefferson Waful, etc.), I feel confident saying that he is both talented and innovative enough to eventually be mentioned alongside those names.
After the wonderful chaos of “Handle With Care” had subsided, the band gave fans one final chance to catch their breath before the weekend ended, with the bouncey Joshua Davis tune “Dustbowl Overtures.” “Hold On” followed and kicked off my single favorite segment in Greensky’s repertoire, a tasty little nugget I like to call a “tarp sammy.”
The encore began with the lead single off of the new album, “Past My Prime.” The Daves were then invited back onto the stage for the last song of the weekend, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” and after a few goodbyes, I left with a smile you couldn’t wipe off my face.
As often as I see this band (and it’s become a lot), I always find myself yearning for the next run as soon as one ends. They bring it night after night and as I mentioned earlier, they seem to thoroughly enjoy the pressure of having to top themselves. They take pride in their work, as any Midwesterner should. They punch the clock and give it their all just like those in the Michigan factories they grew up around. But make no mistake about it, these guys are rock stars.
Set Two: Just Listening, Leap Year, For Sure Uh Huh*, Victory*, New Barns, Handle With Care > Reuben’s Train > Handle With Care, Dustbowl Overtures, Hold On > Tarpology > One Slip > Tarpology > One Slip > Tarpology
Encore: Past My Prime, Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You*
* with Dave Carroll and Dave Simonett