Greensky Bluegrass shows Fayetteville why the band’s star keeps rising
Greensky Bluegrass strolled through George’s Majestic Lounge on Wednesday night in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The band’s development as a tight-knit, outstanding explosion of musicianship has been noted over the years as they’ve honed their craft since founding in 2000, and Wednesday night’s show proved why they are becoming one of the most talked about jamgrass acts in the scene.
GSBG opened Wednesday’s show with a fast-paced “Into the Rafters,” which first appeared on their 2008 album Five Interstates. After an all-business dobro-mandolin duet, Anders Beck and mandolinist/lead vocalist Paul Hoffman closed it out, efficiently moving onto “The Four.” The track features a fantastic signature dobro lick, and some catchy lyrics: “I keep digging holes in someone else’s ditch; I’m looking for apples but they’re all in the trees. Somebody help me cause I can’t be saved; But I haven’t done anything I can’t name…” The backup vocals on the repeating chorus toward the end were a nice touch.
Guitarist and vocalist Dave Bruzza took over on the mic for “Room Without a Roof,” a hearty, melancholy, wistful-feeling track. The song appears on the latest album, Shouted, Written Down & Quoted, released in September on the band’s label, Big Blue Zoo.
After a rousing “Gumboots” and another new track called “Merely Avoiding,” Bruzza stepped back up to sing “Worried About the Weather,” revealing a sort of Dylan-esque vocal pattern. It felt comfortable, as his voice does; like the 30-year-old aural memory of your ultra-talented great uncle Who-Almost-Made-The-Bigtime-In-Nashville singing in the living room with your dad at midnight while you’re pretending to sleep upstairs.
The instrumental jam in “Weather” was outstanding as well, with the mando and dobro volleying back and forth in a chemistry-packed pickin’ battle, tight as could be. The crescendo that culminated with full-group, high-speed pickin-heavy jam was exhilarating — the first of many similar instances during the night. Shortly after, the sound levels crept back down to just a dobro solo during which Beck flexed some muscle, showing off some mad skills and even incorporating some wah-wah pedal effects.
After a short singalong on “Casual Wednesday,” the evening’s opening act, Joshua Davis from television’s “The Voice,” came out for a couple of songs. He played guitar on “Wild Bill Young,” and then also sang lead on “Last Winter in the Copper Country,” which turned into a 12-minute jam session and was enjoyable, while also a little different.
The closer for GSBG’s 85-minute first set was “Can’t Stop Now,” played at breakneck pace with the banjo leading loud and proud on the fast rhythm and the mandolin stealing the spotlight with some great melodic licks. Hoffman, at this point, was fully in the moment; I daresay Ricky Skaggs would’ve been proud. Beck slayed again with a mean, extended dobro solo that felt reckless yet free, like driving down the highway with the windows down, hair all a mess, doing 95 MPH with no seatbelt.
Second set kicked off with “What’s Left of the Night,” featuring great lead vocals by Hoffman, and Beck’s dobro standing out again, discreetly taking the lead in a song filled with longing and love. The banjo solo by Michael Arlen Bont on this track was excellent and thrilling; and then Beck took over again, and he busted out some new-for-this-night effects that had his dobro sounding more like Robert Randolph’s rock-and-roll-funk pedal steel. Hoffman followed it up with a psychedelic mando solo, playful but gentle as the song slowed down to a close after 14 minutes — the second-longest track of the evening.
Next was a crowd-pleasing “Miss September,” followed by the traditional Stanley Brothers’ hit “Pig in a Pen,” made infamous through covers by Ricky Skaggs, Phish, Old and In the Way, Grateful Dead. Bruzza’s vocals sounded appropriately and impressively “Eastern Kentucky traditional mountain sound.”
A couple songs later, GSBG’s “Break Mountain Brokedown” and its rhythmic, dance-inspiring lead melody, by primarily the dobro (and at times the guitar and the mando), mesmerized as much of the audience as any song managed to. The song featured a huge jam with pedals and some wah-wah and other funky dobro effects. Again, the dobro effects started getting more rock-and-roll toward the end of 15-minute long song, and it seamlessly blended into the beginning of a rocking rendition of “Walk Away” (by The James Gang/Joe Cocker). The guitar and dobro effects were perfect for the cover, particularly the driving rhythm and lead melody of the intro and chorus.
Shortly after came the driving banjo leading on “Radio Blues,” featuring the best vocals of the night by Bruzza, with great enunciation and tone. The track included fascinating dobro and guitar solos that — even at this late point in the show — demanded closer attention and visual connection.
Next came a quiet, gradual intro, as is typical, to GSBG crowd fave “Windshield.” The audience finally was quiet and paying close attention as Hoffman captured them with his voice. The last song of the second set was “Run or Die,” with some gritty, hard-rock dobro effects and guitar-pickin’ calisthenics, while the mandolin kept a fiery pace going on rhythm, even during a soft funky bass solo by Mike Devol. The solo grew into a driving, breakneck full-band jam led by Hoffman, channeling Jeff Austin / YMSB circa 2010 at Red Rocks: just going off, lost in his own internal high-speed-bluegrass universe.
After revisiting the “this is the last Casual Wednesday” joke, the soulful, classic waltz encore kicked off, “Drink Up and Go Home,” which was originally recorded by Carl Perkins and later by Jimmy Martin, Bobby Bare, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, among others. If anyone ever sounded more like they’ve suffered heartbreak when they sang this tune, I sure haven’t heard it. Hoffman’s voice is so rich with emotion; it is refreshing and particularly impressive when you see it at shows again and again. It was indeed beautiful, moving and even provocative. Then, they tripled their tempo for a 45-second wrap-up jam, closing out the number and the night on a string of energetic high notes.
Setlist: Greensky Bluegrass | George’s Majestic Lounge | Fayetteville, AR | 5/17/2017
Set I: Into The Rafters, The Four, Room Without A Roof, Gumboots, Merely Avoiding, Worried About The Weather, *Casual Wednesday, *Wild Bill Jones, *Last Winter In Copper Country. Can’t Stop Now
Set II: What’s Left Of The Night>Miss September, Pig In A Pen, Blood Sucking F(r)iends, Anders Banter Talk> Broke Mt. Breakdown>Walk Away>Down The Road>Broke Mt. Breakdown, The Radio Blues, Windshield, Run Or Die
Encore: Casual Wednesday Reprise>Drink Up And Go Home>Broke Mt. Breakdown
* with Joshua Davis
The review was originally published on May 18, 2017, on LiveForLiveMusic.com.