For a band that tours as steadily as Greensky Bluegrass, the pandemic certainly had a huge impact when it brought touring to a standstill in 2020.
“I think [the pandemic shutdown] was a good and bad thing,” says guitarist Dave Bruzza via phone from his Denver home. Greensky Bluegrass performs on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at the Agora. “The bad part is very apparent. It was nice to take a step back and take a breath for the first time in 20 years. Now that I look back on it, I see that as a big plus. We found ways to be creative. We made a record during that time and did some writing and experienced personal growth. This year was a little different. This year has been great. Things seem more comfortable, and we’ve been lucky with that.”
Though band members began writing new songs in isolation in Spring of 2020, the band spent a week in Colorado in August of 2020 at a rental house in Winter Park where the members could just focus on fine-tuning the material they had started to develop.
“[After touring shut down,] everyone was in their respective homes. We all spread out and went to the places we needed to be for our personal lives,” says Bruzza. “We don’t live in the same place anymore, so we started sharing demos we had recorded at home. At some point, we realized that in that shared folder, we had a ton of songs. Everyone was doing their thing. We decided that if we couldn’t go on the road, we should go make a record. We have a friend in the mountains who let us borrow their pad, and we combed through the songs and made demos from there. At that point, we were then ready to go to the studio.”
In September of 2020, it started recording what would become Stress Dreams in Guilford, VT and in Asheville, NC with frequent collaborator and old friend Dominic John Davis as producer and “wizard engineer” Glenn Brown mixing.
The title track represents the first-ever song written by bassist Mike Devol, who’s originally from the Akron area.
“I’m so impressed with Mike because he’s such an incredible musician and so knowledgeable about music,” says Bruzza. “He composed that piece, and it was my absolute favorite out of all the songs. I’m not trying to play favorites. I can’t speak for everyone, but it spoke to me about where we were at in the world. Our friend [and a member of the band Ghost Light and frequent collaborator with Phil Lesh] Holly [Bowling] was traveling with her family in the area, and she came by to put on the piano and organ on it, and that was the icing on the cake. That’s one of the best things we’ve ever recorded.”
Another album highlight, the Bruzza-penned “Streetlight” sounds like it could be a track by Dylan/the Band.
“It just started off as kind of a joke,” Bruzza says when asked about the track. “I made a joke that I could make a song about anything. A day later [after working on the tune], I thought it was pretty good, and I started messing around with it. I sent it to my friend Aaron Allen. He helped me complete the thing. I wasn’t planning on submitting to the record process, but the guys liked it, so we recorded it.”
With its lyrics about the constant need for "the new shit," “New & Improved,” another song that Devol wrote, serves a good social commentary.
“I really connected with it,” says Bruzza when asked about the tune. “I went through a divorce a couple of years ago and have been sober for two years now. I was newly sober and we were going to figure out who could sing the songs that Mike wrote. I put my own personal stuff behind it when I sang it. It’s a good song about growth and moving forward. Plus, it was musically interesting. Mike put a challenging section and we play in 7/8 and then go back to 4/4. It’s a tricky way to count music sometimes. To the normal ear, you can’t really pick up on that type of stuff.”
Bruzza says new songs are starting to surface, but the focus at the moment is the band's annual winter tour. The combination of steady touring and writing in spurts has served the band well. In short time, the group will celebrate 25 years together.
In the end, Bruzza attributes the band’s longevity to the fact that members “genuinely like each other.”
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].