On a day when we lost “Fast” Eddie Clarke, the last surviving original member of one of the most powerful and influential bands in rock-and-roll history, and our dumpster-fire of a president referred to vast sections of the earth as “shithole countries,” I got about as far from rock and roll and the news as possible: I attended my first Greensky Bluegrass concert.
The January 11 concert — the first of three sold-out shows at the 1,600-capacity Ogden Theatre by a jam band without a drummer or political hostility — seemed like a good place to hide from reality.
Jamgrass is a genre whose inception arguably dates back to tracks like “Cumberland Blues” from the Grateful Dead’s 1970 classic Workingman’s Dead and the woodsy, mellow 1981 all-acoustic Dead album Reckoning. But the five-piece “progressive bluegrass” band Greensky Bluegrass, formed eighteen years ago in Michigan, has won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition in 2006 and absorbed the influence of bluegrass greats like Del McCoury and Hot Rize.
Still, I spent the day listening to loads of ska, punk and metal to clean my proverbial palate in anticipation of spending a few hours in a musical world that I’ve avoided for a long time.
When Greensky – banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, upright bass and dobro – kicked into the uptempo bluegrass number “Kerosene,” I was pleasantly surprised by the grit of David Bruzza’s voice and lyrics and the old-time twang of Anders Beck’s dobro. The jam-band scene is known for the most inebriated, impolite, dirty and spatially unaware fans in modern music fandom — and many in Greensky’s crowd lived up to that the moment the music started — but I was initially impressed with the quintet’s energy, talent and tightness despite whatever discomfort I was experiencing.
Bassist Mike Devol is especially captivating; he's a deceptively straightforward anchor, providing the heart of Greensky’s melody, percussion and tempo with a great poker face. Without a drummer, Devol and the rest of Greensky do an exceptional job creating the illusion of four-on-the-floor, bass-drum-and-hi-hat rhythms a more rock-oriented bluegrass or country band would provide to get a big audience’s feet moving.
Co-frontman Paul Hoffman (mandolin/vocals) stepped into the spotlight late in the first set with “Demons,” a highlight of Greensky’s repertoire and a welcome bit of lyrical darkness amid an otherwise sunny, breezy list of hippie koans and memories of short-lived love typically found in jam-band tunes. The lines “I was happy but now I’m leaving/With the rest of my beer/I’m going home with my demons” is even a fond reminder of the National’s own gem “Demons.”
The National, however, would most likely be booed if it tacked fifteen-minute guitar solos onto its beautifully crafted and delivered three-minute pop songs, and that’s where Greensky loses me — and obviously gains a cult following in the jam-band scene. Still, while Greensky’s jams have a joyous, Phishy bounce on the surface, Beck’s dobro thankfully keeps the improvisations, and most of Greensky’s music, just shy of the “too nice” territory a lot of modern bluegrass veers into. And the more uptempo the songs are, the more Greensky shines as a unique, badass band rooted in Americana. Conversely, the funky, blues-based string jams wander into the endless, pointless noodling that folks outside the jam-band scene loathe.
Like just about every other jam band not including Duane Allman or Jerry Garcia, Greensky – which took notes from early Phish last night with some choreographed dance moves, quotes of classic-rock riffs during jams and a cover of Traffic’s “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” — lacks a soloist with a rhapsodic, relevant, poignant once-in-a-generation voice, and that’s all right when the band is focused on tight versions of well-crafted songs and tasteful, brief solos rather than fifteen-minute jams.
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But the real chore when attending jam-band concerts is maintaining sanity amid an audience that, by the time the first set starts, includes many people so inebriated that they knock into each other, and even accidentally headbutt each other while dancing, without even realizing that they’ve upset — and sometimes physically hurt — a fellow concert-goer. If Trump/Russia is “stupid Watergate,” the aforementioned phenomenon is “stupid moshing.”
Between sets, a guy at the urinal next to me turned and stated flatly, “I have to poop when I do coke.” Nice to meet you, too, buddy. And moments before Greensky started its second set, with the uptempo Hoffman number “Better Off,” an incredibly intoxicated young man a few rows from the stage puked everywhere, soiling (and clearing out) a large section of concert-goers.
Someone shouted, “Cleanup on aisle six!” as security brought in “barf bags” full of sawdust to pour all over the floor just feet from the stage.
Despite that, both audience and band were having a great time, and that’s relevant and poignant in itself, no matter your taste in music.