Greensky Bluegrass Takes Some Time in the Studio to Stretch Their Legs

click to enlarge Greensky Bluegrass Takes Some Time in the Studio to Stretch Their Legs

The divide between stage and studio is always a fascinating line to cross for those bands who dabble in live improvisation regularly — “jam bands,” you could say — and each new record is a chance to blur the line just that much more. With the latest chapter in the story of Greensky Bluegrass, that’s the finished product that listeners have been digesting for the past few months.

The band — Dave Bruzza (guitar), Anders Beck (dobro), Mike Bont (banjo), Paul Hoffman (mandolin) and Mike Devol (upright bass) — has maintained a busy routine for more than 15 years now, and it’s netted them a bigger and more fervent fan base in the revitalized American bluegrass scene. “Newgrass,” you could call it. Or “just good music.” Their discography is formidable, with live albums and studio stuff marking each step in their progress.

Beck jumped on the phone with Scene recently, ahead of the band’s Jan. 11 return to Cleveland and during a time of great activity. Greensky had just returned from Strings and Sol in Mexico, and they were looking toward their New Year’s run in their home state of Michigan.

The band released its latest album, Shouted, Written Down & Quoted, on Sept. 23, adding a notch to an impressive lineup of albums nestled in what could be called “Greensky 2.0” — the era following a handful of live albums and an era that has heralded bigger stages, bigger typefaces on festival bills. It’s a worthy album among that set.

Here, the musicians seem to stretch their in-studio muscles in much the same way as they do onstage.

Beck shines; his dobro lead work is more electric, literally and figuratively. His solos are patient and engaging. Take “Living Over,” arguably the musical centerpiece of the album. There’s a distortion to the instrumentation that hasn’t always been a hallmark of the band’s studio time.

“It’s something that we’ve taken from our live show,” Beck says. “I’ve started doing that kind of stuff in the live setting over the last couple years — whether there’s an amp onstage that’s essentially set to 11 that I can mix in with my clean dobro tone to create that big sound.”

Arena rock it’s not, but the dobro solo (and Paul Hoffman’s spacey mandolin solo) represent an ambitious leap forward for a band that’s already been spending years developing its approach to live, unconscious jamming.

“I think they’re the truest form of what Greensky does live that we’ve ever captured on a studio album,” Beck says, discussing “Living Over” and “Past My Prime,” which also features extended instrumentation beyond the central song structure. “We captured something special, and that’s really exciting for us.”

He added that there aren’t so much concrete goals when the band hits the studio, but rather a conscious desire to do things differently, to leave a unique mark on their time together.

“We get excited about sort of making the next chapter of Greensky Bluegrass,” Beck says. “It’s an evolution, but it’s all part of the same book. It’s the next chapter of our music, but also of our lives.”

Beck says that an important part of each trip into the studio is expanding the band’s sound and doing things differently. That may seem at face value like a simple statement, but cuts much deeper — especially against the backdrop of a Western market turning away from the concept of the album as art form.

“We learn how to try new things and create new songs,” Beck says. “There’s a certain evolution that occurs that I don’t necessarily think we’re trying to achieve, but it’s just that we’re growing up.”

Greensky Bluegrass has been together long enough for each member to know the musical consciousness of the other guys, to be able to read ideas before they manifest themselves. This is what has made their songwriting and improvisation so enticing for anyone passing by their stage at a mid-summer festival. In watching Greensky for years now, it’s quite clear that they’ve been working to push the boundaries of bluegrass and explore something altogether more psychedelic and idiosyncratic.

Sure enough, there will be more music to come. For now, Shouted, Written Down & Quoted represents the fresh pastures that older albums once represented — which albums have now gone on to evolve in their meanings for the musicians and fans alike.

“I’m a fan of the band, as well, you know,” Beck says with a laugh. “It’s strange to say that, but it’s true. You hear these — and I guess we’re playing them — but you hear these old songs, and, for me, they are kind of a footprint in time and they mean something from a moment when they first came to life. What I’ve found playing those songs now, five or eight years later or whatever, they mean different things to me. And I suspect they mean different things to everybody. To me, that’s the sign of a really good song.”

Looking ahead, as we’re all wont to do at this time of year, Beck sees another high-energy spin for Greensky Bluegrass. The January show is one thing for us in Cleveland; elsewhere, expect to see Greensky touring like crazy. (We spoke with Beck on the same day of the announcement of Dark Star Jubilee’s annual late-May festival in central Ohio. He points out how these announcements come earlier and earlier each year.)

“Everything’s growing,” Beck says of the band’s road time and studio work. “That’s the goal and the plan. If we can focus on that, then everything else positive shall hopefully come our way.”

Greensky Bluegrass
8 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 11, House of Blues 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $20-30,

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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