Words by James Cleland | Photos by Jimmy Grotting
South of the Bay Area has historically been a bit of a tricky area for bluegrass bands. As you tour down highway one, redwoods and snowcapped Sierra Mountains are traded for palm trees and sun bleached surf towns, traditionally more attuned to punk, ska and EDM than Greensky Bluegrass’ emerging brand of rock, indie-Americana, and newgrass. And despite a chilly San Diego Sunday night, the frenetic buzz of Greensky’s recent playing seemed to beckon the Solana Beach locals off their couches and into the warmth of the Belly Up. Having seen at least a half-dozen shows at the Aspen enclave of the Belly Up, I was especially eager to explore the Pacific Coast version and catch one of my favorite bands throw down a Sunday night scorcher. The venue was pleasantly packed with toe-headed surfers and bluegrass faithful alike, all seeking San Diego’s infamous hopped out brews and Michigan’s elite banner-wavers of bluegrass.
No punches were pulled in the first set with extremely strong versions of “Demons”, a stormy but gorgeous Paul Hoffman-penned tune that has quickly become a classic, further enhanced by a devilish new horn-shaped light backdrop almost custom made for this dark tune, as well as the longtime staple cover of the Pink Floyd classic, “Time”. Spooky and furious as always, “Time” is a loyal conduit for Greensky to whip up their almost stew like jams which simmer and simmer before nearly boiling over with intensity.
“Don’t Lie”, off of 2011’s Handguns album, kicked the second set off after a slinky but gorgeous intro and proceeded to set the Belly Up ablaze after finally dropping into the song’s first few twanged out notes. “Don’t Lie” is undoubtedly one of the best songs this band plays, with the band building and building off with one another, and in the process creating a dance groove that is simply jaw dropping considering it’s acoustic foundations.
Other highlights included stellar versions of “No Idea”, “Better Off”, “Train Junkie” and the always popular ode to petty crime, “Jaywalking”.
It’s no secret that covers for Greensky are nearly always home-runs and the Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” encore was one I’ve been dying to see live. Dobro player Anders Beck and acoustic guitarist Dave Bruzza offer a twanged out version of Mark Knopfler’s signature lick against Paul Hoffman’s playful interpretation of the lyrical refrain. The band has an uncanny ability to make covers their own and they’ve mapped this one out cold. The formerly sleepy Solana Beach crowd whipped their sweat from their brows as the final whispers of “I want my MTV…” left the stage, and roared into applause.
Greensky Bluegrass are absolute touring machines. This fall tour has seen them hit 42 dates at seemingly every pocket of the country and the work is paying off in spades. While other bands seem to slow and sputter as they reach the end of long stretches away from home, this quintet locks in and kicks into next gear, knowing they are picking up new fans in every city. Having seen this band near a dozen times, there is a palpable buzz in this scene that the boys from Kalamazoo are quite simply the best at what they do. Their old songs feel fresh-out-the-box crisp thanks to the tight interplay that lays the foundation for new jams which push out into the ether. The more recently penned tunes are gaining steam with fans eager to see what makes the cut for the new album due out in 2014 with numbers like “Kerosene”, “In Control” and “Demons” all but confirmed. The covers stay just as outrageously fun with fresh ones entering the rotation every few weeks, including even a pass through “Rift” by Phish just this past weekend. You can see them exploring new frontiers and textures of sound with an evident increase in the confidence of their playing. Add in a growing arsenal of heart wrenching ballads juxtaposed against razor sharp jams and it’s hard to imagine where these guys won’t go.