Dave Bruzza: Unsafe at Any Speed - April 2019

Colorado, USA

Words & photos by Jon Rosenberger (PhotoFooFoo)

Greensky Bluegrass, the five-piece string music band, has grown from humble 2003 beginnings in the living rooms and open mic nights of Kalamazoo, Michigan into the nationwide jamgrass touring juggernaut of today. Regularly selling out fifteen hundred seat theaters from coast to coast including multiple nights at Colorado’s revered Red Rocks Amphitheatre and performing at seemingly every notable music festival in the country all summer long, their star is on the ascent with seemingly no roof in sight. So what does an acclaimed, successful jamgrass rock star do when he isn’t out riding the beautiful people tour life? The answer for the members of Greensky is to go on ‘buddy’ tour. The individual members of have nearly always done solo or duo outings, often as show openers in support of friends on ‘off’ nights, but the last few years have seen more polished, organized multi-night runs complete with merchandise and properly rehearsed band mates.

Paul Hoffman and Anders Beck have mini toured the last few years with their phab4, phab6, phab5 ensembles which have included compatriots such as Billy Strings, Fruition’s Jay Cobb Anderson and Tyler Thompson, Railroad Earth's Andrew Altman, Holly Bowling of Ghost Light and then finally just adopting musical cohorts the Cris Jacobs Band to join them en masse last year. These shows have been tremendously popular with string music fans as the music structures and expectations are significantly lower than for normal Greensky shows and basically amount to playground ‘pickup’ games where the songs and jams vary from night to night in no seeming pattern, there is no new LP to promote, there is no tour manager telling them to get on the bus and there is a return to roots feeling that is apparent to both band and fans. Mike Devol played with the Bluegrass Generals this last weekend and did a show with Dave Bruzza last year in Fort Collins, both of which gave him an opportunity to sing lead which is not a role he has in Greensky. Michael Bont has branched out in a non banjo fashion doing DJBont sets at both Strings and Sol and Camp Greensky. He loves to spin old skool R&B and Hip Hop and will perform his first gig without Greensky present this May at the Aiken Bluegrass Festival.

Dave Bruzza, Greensky’s guitar player, has mini toured in both Michigan and Colorado the last two years under the b(r)and name Unsafe at Any Speed. Unlike his fellow bandmates his extracurricular outings have much more of a polished side project feel to them. The songs are well rehearsed, the band is uber tight, having a great feel onstage for what each of them is doing musically and yet loose enough to allow for improvisation and surprises. Only the bass players have altered in the past with Dave having brought along at times Greg Burns, bandmate Mike Devol and on this year’s campaign Dominic John Davis on the bottom end. Dominic has a few day jobs of his own, most notably as the bass player for Jack White and as a record producer including this year’s Greensky Bluegrass release All For Money. Dom and Dave have a long history working the circuit in the Midwest as Dominic started his career in the Michigan band Steppin’ In It. Michael Shimmin returned on drums, he’s also a sometime member of Steppin’ In It, as well as providing percussion for bands in an incredibly wide array of genres such as celtic music, R&B, and folk, as well as rock. Shimmy can keep time on everything from an egg shaker to a cajon to a full double bass kit and he does a tremendous job with Unsafe filling in the time signatures and even providing several full on drum solos. Jimmy Matt Rowland, aka Mr. Jimmy, is on keyboards. Mr. Jimmy toured with Rayland Baxter’s band opening for Greensky a few years back and his whirling organs and smiling, head bopping stage presence have been welcomed in sit-ins and various band permutations ever since. His ivory wizardry is astonishing, seemingly always knowing the perfect thing to fill in with and when exactly to sit out and let the song flow around him. Finally, Lyle Brewer shares guitar duties with Dave. They met via the Ryan Montbleau band which was a Greensky opener as well, and while I was initially surprised last year that Dave would enlist a second guitarist, I quickly came to realize why Lyle was inveigled away from his day job as a guitar professor at the Berklee School of Music.

Lyle is an amazing guitar player. He lives, eats, breathes, walks the dog, washes the car and farts all while thinking about guitar playing. How he can be better? What he can learn from others? How to share his love of guitar with others are the sorts of things that drive his progression as a player. The question I heard most this last weekend and which I gladly answered was “Who the hell is on the other guitar?“

It would be understandable if you had seen any of the guy’s efforts the last few years to think that an Unsafe at Any Speed show is basically just Greensky esque or Greensky lite, Dave’s Greensky songs performed with different players but basically in a jam grass style. That would be wrong, dead wrong. Dave is a rocker at heart having started in a metal band as a drummer. And while there is certainly nothing here that’s metal or even hard rock this ain’t your daddy’s bluegrass band either. Two guitar, in your face attack on most songs and plenty of full neck, electric six string thrashing, keyboards wailing, electric bass bombs and full drum kit thrumping; The band performs nearly every Bruzza song in a completely new angrier punchier manner. "Kerosene," long a Greensky show favorite, becomes a monster jam when electrified, much more akin to its dirty beginnings on Dave’s project LP Harmony of the Fade (2012) than as to the treatment it was given on its inclusion on If Sorrows Swim (2014). Similarly, fan favorites “Room without a Roof”, “Worried about the Weather” and “Wings for Wheels” are darker faster and angsty; they simply have more edge given the increased range of the amplified instruments. Only “Like Reflections” and “Cold Feet” bear any resemblance to their string band forbears. “Radio Blues,” perhaps the oldest Bruzza song to get an outing is reduced back to its country honky tonk origins and is incredibly slow and syncopated, completely a different song. The band also plays a smattering of well-known covers and crowd pleasers such as “Mr. Charlie” and “Goin Down the Road Felling Bad.” It’s a high energy rocking time and dancing is evident in the crowd with lots of get down jams and sing-alongs.

The wonderful thing about all of these extra marital projects is that for those of us that have been a part of the camper community since it nearly began, fell in love with this band and these players in tiny dirty bars and crappy old ballrooms and have watched this band rise and grow and edge closer to the elite land of number one albums, of luxury buses and jets instead of vans and station wagons, it’s a chance to go back home, to stand with your friends on the rail with plenty of room and enjoy a show together singing back songs that you all know. Slightly different versions of them? Sure. Rockier, mature versions of what you love, but you love them just the same and the experience and feelings are the same too: community, connectedness and joy between audience and band all getting to experience something special with one another. If you get the chance to catch any of these "side jobs," do it, seek it out, they are special, they are just as as special as the guys doing them.


Colorado Tour Dates:

4.25.19 | Cervantes Other Side | Denver, CO
4.26.19 | Boulder Theater | Boulder, CO
4.27.19 | Ten Mile Music Hall | Frisco, CO

Songs Played:

Like Reflections, Foggy Mountain Special , Cold Feet, Room Without a Roof, Cocaine and Jim Beam, Worried About the Weather, That’s What Love Will Make You Do, Radio Blues, Take Cover, Wings for Wheels, Pipeline, If I Had a Boat, Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You, A Letter to Seymour, Blood Sucking F(r)iends, I’d Probably Kill You, Kerosene, Going Down the Road Feeling Bad, I’m Still Here, Mr. Charlie, It’s Not Mine Anymore


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