Sunday has long struck me as the best day of the week for bluegrass music. There’s an inherent connection between the pensive, reflective nature of this day of rest and the earnest, honest lyrics and down home plucking and picking that characterize the genre, and my past experiences in attending summer festivals have also supported this claim. Given the opportunity to see Michigan natives Greensky Bluegrass at Troubadour, I jumped at the chance to experience their live show for the first time within the confines of a historic folk music haven on a day that practically calls out for the inviting sound this talented quintet creates.
Troubadour has had every type of music performed inside its walls since opening over 50 years ago circa 1960. An intimate two-story space prominently located on the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, I have visited the room for over a decade, but I believe this was the first time I heard a bluegrass band there. In fact, I must confess that my knowledge of the style is by and large limited, save for a few exceptions including Yonder Mountain String Band, The Del McCoury Band and Bela Fleck, and it had been many months since I had listened to a group exclusively devoted to it in concert. So the show filled a number of voids and I made my way down Santa Monica Blvd., arriving at a venue just shy of sold out by a lively audience of core fans and those like myself, inquisitive and curious to hear the sonic output that has built a solid following all around the country.
Opening act Tumbleweed Wanderers unspooled a languid set that lasted a bit under an hour and felt as if it went on longer than that, although a few peak moments along the way did transpire to punctuate the mood. They were in no hurry, and perhaps rightfully so, as the preliminary slot prepared us all for a patient and lengthy affair from headliners Greensky Bluegrass, one that showcased their distinct abilities and influences with abundance. The main act took the stage and dove headfirst into the night with copious amounts of original material that rang out equally as timeless and relevant. As they are a relatively young band, the first aspect which stood out to me was the exceedingly capable and convincing vocals, delivered with conviction and confidence. Each of the singer/musicians had their own range and drew me in with rustic tales of pure Americana. Instrumentally, the players displayed a healthy amount of chops to justify the acclaim that readily circulated in advance of this performance. While the group can technically be divided between three original members Michael Bont on banjo, Dave Bruzza on guitar and Paul Hoffman on mandolin and two subsequent additions to the lineup in Michael Devol on bass and Anders Beck on dobro, the five gentlemen operated in unison to offer their harmonies and intertwining chords as the crowd returned the favor with vocal praise for their efforts.
The room was a snug fit for them and Paul’s animated presence (and nimble footwork) proved contagious, energizing fans and his bandmates alike. Casual interaction abounded as Anders bantered self-reflexively during his between song speeches, reminiscent of a comedy bit I had heard from Flight of the Conchords, among other stand-up acts. These jovial and informal interludes were juxtaposed with workmanlike renditions from their catalog until the end of the first set when improvisation and elongation took hold and covers started materializing including a tease of “Smoke on the Water” that popped up before a longer take on “Get Back” sandwiched inside “Broke Mountain Breakdown”. A brief setbreak followed, thinning the crowd ever so slightly, but the playing didn’t suffer as the second half was just as strong with a majority of their own songs as well as a seemingly spur of the moment “West LA Fadeaway” featuring lighting director Andrew Lincoln on vocals – though it was actually predetermined based on a setlist obtained after the show. Just as the audience adorned in jamband t-shirts literally wears musical hearts on their sleeves, Greensky Bluegrass make no bones about proclaiming their affinity for elder statesman groups like The Beatles and The Grateful Dead by reviving classic rock staples such as these within the framework of their own concert.
Rock music does play a significant role in their stage show in terms of the volume this music is presented as it seemed to be substantially louder in the Troubadour than I had ever heard bluegrass played before. The bass was borderline uncomfortably reverberant in the balcony, but that may have just been in an isolated area as the mix was better on the floor level. Clearly they are appealing to a new generation of musical consumers with increased amplification as well as a colorful light display to accentuate the songs. Greensky Bluegrass’ performance at the Troubadour opened my eyes to a genre that doesn’t generate too much attention in and around Hollywood. If the fans’ reaction on Sunday was any indication, bluegrass remains popular and commercially viable, even in notoriously fickle Los Angeles, and what I saw bodes well for a continued sustainability in markets nationwide.
Letter to Seymour
I’d Probably Kill You
Broke Mountain Breakdown >
Get Back >
Broke Mountain Breakdown
Steam Powered Aeroplane
Wings for Wheels
West LA Fadeaway*
Clinch Mountain Backstep
* – with Andrew Lincoln (vocals)