The first time Greensky Bluegrass played Red Rocks, in 2013, mandolinist Paul Hoffman was a ball of nerves.
"For the rest of the night after our performance, I remember still being really riddled with anxiety about it. We'd played for 10,000 people and more than that, but it's just something about Red Rocks," he recalls. "It's just so in-your-face. It's so vertical and so steep. I've never played anywhere else where I feel like I can see all the people, from row one to the top; it's like people are from my foot to my head just right in front of me.
"It makes it really powerful and really magical," he continues. "That's probably part of what's so cool about it, aside from just that rock setting — that steepness and the way that it still feels kind of intimate, even though it's 10,000 people. It's really cool."
Greensky has gotten somewhat used to that overwhelming wave of energy after playing the venue regularly since then, and the act will return for its annual two-night run on Friday, September 15. Anyone who's seen the bluegrass band perform there knows that it always puts on an unforgettable concert, and Hoffman emphasizes that he and his bandmates endeavor to make each show more memorable than the last.
"We talk about Red Rocks pretty early compared to a lot of shows. We joke that the goal every night is to play longer, faster, harder and better. Every show is supposed to be better than the last one, which is a pretty hard standard to hold oneself to, to be honest," he says with a laugh. "But we sure do try. So that's going to be the goal for this one — to play the best Red Rocks shows we've ever played."
That will include fans hearing "some new songs," Hoffman teases. "We may dust off some old covers that we haven't played in a long time. We'll probably do some collaborating with our openers." And those would be the Teskey Brothers on Friday and Sierra Ferrell on Saturday.
"When something becomes an annual tradition, too, there becomes a benchmark. We'll have a look at our catalogue and say, 'Oh, we've never played these five songs at Red Rocks ever, so maybe we'll play some of those,'" Hoffman adds. "Maybe we'll do some other special guests or something. We're always trying to pull tricks out."
Once the Red Rocks run is complete, Greensky will prepare for its fall tour as well as a New Year's Eve run in Michigan, where the band first got together twenty years ago. Since then, the five-piece has made a name for itself by pushing the boundaries of bluegrass while still maintaining the standards of the genre.
Bluegrass itself has seen a recent surge in popularity, with acts such as Billy Strings taking home Grammy awards and introducing the genre to a new generation. "I think it's exciting what's happening with bluegrass music," Hoffman says. "A lot of our friends who play kind of do the same thing we do, which is incorporate all kinds of other musical influences into bluegrass, or using bluegrass as a vehicle to express other kinds of music."
Hoffman, who is the group's primary songwriter, draws inspiration from a myriad of genres but has a special affinity for the indie-rock group Death Cab for Cutie. "That's maybe a place that you wouldn't expect will be a big influence, but it's a total songwriting thing," he says. "But beyond that, the way they build the dynamics of the songs, the way that they start small and pump big, there's some structural song ideas there that I learned a lot from. Bands like that just do it different than a bluegrass band would do.
"When it's just the five of us, it's very much a bluegrass ensemble, regardless of what we're playing or what we sound like at the time," Hoffman continues. "And I think the things that make our band unique and different are, first and foremost, the songs — whether it's the subject matter or the way that we approach music, the way that I write and my bandmates write. I think we also have a pretty rowdy and raucous rock-and-roll energy...that's very much an energy-based performance. Kind of like an experiential approach to music."
Fans will experience it firsthand at Red Rocks this weekend, and Hoffman is as excited as ever to share what the band's been cooking up. Greensky Bluegrass has been well received at the venue for the past decade — even selling it out — and he knows that the run is seen as a family reunion of sorts.
"The goal of the concert is to have an experience that's emotional, exciting and fun. And I'm sure every band says that and cares about those same things, but that's the sort of experience that defines us as who we are," Hoffman says. "I feel blessed that we are able to have this experience for ourselves, and also that we're able to curate it for the people who come to watch it. It's palpable, how much it means to these people, our fans and our friends, to be together and to be here."
Greensky Bluegress, 7 p.m. Friday, September 15, and Saturday, September 16, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison. Tickets start at $50.