Author: Baker, Chris
Date published: January 18, 2012
Journal code: SYNT
Over the past decade, a rejuvenated blend of modified bluegrass has emerged as a musical force, permeating country, folk and improv rock scenes. Innovators like String Cheese Incident challenge the bluegrass status quo with synthesizers, electric guitars and driving percussion. Such pioneers have paved the way for a new generation of "newgrass," with concerts reeking of mid-1960s Haight-Ashbury fervor.
Greensky Bluegrass has forged ahead on this path, creating an ever-evolving style of hybrid bluegrass for future generations of string fans. In spite of their name, Greensky Bluegrass insists they're anything but traditional. "We play rock'n'roll on bluegrass instruments," explains dobro player Anders Beck.
The quintet from Kalamazoo, Mich., brings its rocking brand of finger-picking string music to the Westcott Theater, 524 Westcott St., for a 7 p.m. show on Sunday, Jan. 22. Advance tickets are $12, available at Armory Square's Sound Garden, 310 W. Jefferson St., or at www.thewestcottthe ater.com. Expect to pay $15 at the door.
This show marks the group's third trip to Syracuse over the last 18 months. "We love that place," says Beck in regard to the Westcott. "They take great care of us and the fans are always great in the 'Cuse. We're really psyched to go back."
While Beck cites bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe among the band's many influences (including more eclectic muses such as the Grateful Dead and Radiohead), he is quick to disassociate Greensky from the traditional Kentucky variety. Rather, he likens his group to newgrass standards like String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band and Railroad Earth.
"At a traditional bluegrass show you sit and listen," Beck says. "Personally, I'd rather see a band I can dance and rock out to. That's exactly what we are."
While their music is clearly grounded in bluegrass roots, traces of jam rock and psychedelia, particularly in their latest studio effort Handguns, are undeniable. Handguns, which can be streamed free at www.greenskybluegrass. com, overflows the boundaries of typical bluegrass music. With drums, horns and distorted slide guitar, notably on the title track, the album seamlessly fuses banjo and mandolin with electric steel, creating the group's own unique blend of "jam grass."
"We've all studied bluegrass music and, in fact, we are a good traditional bluegrass band-sometimes for three or four minutes," Beck says. "But we turn that bluegrass into something more. We jam."
Primarily, Greensky appeals to the youngest generation of bluegrass fans. Their vocals, stage presence and extended free-range improv resonate with folks accustomed to bands like Umphrey's McGee. Bluegrass purists, however, are treated to sound technical playing and a familiar bass backbone.
Greensky combines their revitalized brand of bluegrass-style music with an age-old model of relentless touring to bring their music to a wide population. The group is comprised of seasoned road veterans, having played nearly 1,000 shows over the last six years.
"It's not like we're going to have a reality show about us or an MTV hit single," Beck says. "We've got to spread our own gospel by playing shows and winning over fans one at a time."
While many artists capture the nation's fleeting attentions with nip slips and mediumrare dresses, Greensky wows audiences the old-fashioned way: with good music and tight performances. Fads come and go, but the group is convinced that solid renditions of well-written songs will never go unnoticed.
The Michigan natives' model for success mimics that of the Grateful Dead, who made a career on the road. The band also offers free online music in an effort to cultivate their burgeoning fan base. Last summer, they had a chance to share the stage with two original Dead members, Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart. Beck says it was the highlight of his musical career.
Greensky's grass-roots model is a constant effort, but their dedication pays off. Last summer they played major festivals including Bumbershoot, the Hangout Festival, Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival and Bonnaroo. The asphalt warriors played more than 170 shows in 2011 and have no intentions of slowing down.
"If you had told me five years ago I'd be playing Bonnaroo with a bluegrass band, I'd have laughed," Beck says. "But that's the way this business works. Things are always changing."