Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Greensky Bluegrass

There’s no jug in this new-grass band

Express Staff Writer

“Waltzing, moshing, lawn chairs, water balloons—ask me and I’d say they all belong together.” Paul Hoffman, mandolin player (back corner) on Greensky Bluegrass’ appeal. Courtesy photo

When backgrounding myself on this band I assumed it was—given their name—a traditional bluegrass band—not at all a bad thing. But when I saw this review from an L.A. Bluegrass reviewer that said "I admire the traditional bluegrass concert, but how many bands can transform Prince's "When Doves Cry" into a joyous, 12 minutes of string-pickin' jam rock?," I realized these guys were different.

After spending some time with their music, and reading more about their philosophy, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to sum these guys up and it was best to leave it to them to explain.

If the words of mandolin player Paul Hoffman intrigue, you can catch the Michigan quintet tonight, Feb. 22, at 9 p.m. at Whiskey Jacques' in Ketchum for $8.

There are a lot of pleasant oddities about your music and your fans. I saw a reference to a hippie mosh pit? What's that about?

It seems like the word "bluegrass" has the potential to pigeonhole a band into some small box but we've never really let it bother us or hold us back. We all come from an eclectic background of playing and listening to music. I guess that's why our music appeals to such an array of listeners. Waltzing, moshing, lawn chairs, water balloons—ask me and I'd say they all belong together.

Most of your most complimentary press is filled with similar contradictions. Like ramping up cover songs from master musicians, is that intentional?

Were we intentionally seeking contradiction? I don't think so. Playing outside of the expectations that our instruments create challenges us. "When Doves Cry" was actually the first one. We were still a new band and the song just seemed to lend well to our arrangement. In the beginning, at early bar gigs, we used to joke that "Doves" was the converter. Once we played something they knew and could sing along to, they realized that bluegrass was cool. Same philosophy for any band I imagine—play songs they know and they'll get to know you too. But we had to convert people to the whole idea of bluegrass.  Convince them that liking bluegrass didn't mean you weren't hip, or whatever they were worried about.

Did you form the group with an idea of what your style would be or did that morph after the collaboration?

We were learning our instruments when we started. In the beginning, we were, therefore, pretty stylistically limited. We didn't write many original songs. Just a couple guys learning how to play bluegrass and playing open mics for free beer. When I look back I really appreciate those early friends who became fans and encouraged us. There were no mutterings of career, agent or promo budget back then. It just happened. As we grew and became more proficient, we just challenged ourselves to different things and we wanted the show to be balanced. All bluegrass is a lot of the same thing for the whole show, in my humble opinion, so we tried playing stuff that sounded different and utilized other characters of the instruments. I think even the most straight-ahead grass bands do it. We just may go farther and more often.

If you had five minutes to pitch the band using one instrument and one voice to make your point, what would you offer?

Well that's a new one. Ultimately I think people come back for more Greensky because they love the songs, which is very flattering since I've written many of them.  Our live show is energetic and fun and that too plays an important role in the repeat offender.  But only two? I guess we'd get Dave Bruzza to play guitar and I would sing you some of the Greensky hits. Ha—hits? Ha.

Do programs like "American Idol" and "The Voice" help or hurt the music business today?

No harm done. I think it's great. Our post office workers [in our town in Michigan] are always saying we should enter. I told her that show is for waitresses. Jokingly. There are so many people with musical talent. I think the show[s] makes that such an acute reality. Being successful requires so much more. Like the songs I mentioned above. Stamina. Charisma. Courage. Not to talk myself up but getting as far as we have—how far is that even? I have no idea—was so much more than being a good mandolin player. There are people on those shows who sing better than me. People don't always like the "best" though.  P.S. I watched the premier of "The Voice" after the Super Bowl. I liked the guy who sang the Ray Lamontague song. Maybe I'm partial.

Anything else you want to add to entice people to the show?

I may have babbled enough. Let's keep this one simple. The show is going to be fun. That's my plan, anyway. Join us. Unless you're scared!

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