The Sky is Always Greener When Greensky Bluegrass Comes to Town

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click to enlarge The Sky is Always Greener When Greensky Bluegrass Comes to Town
Courtesy of Musical Earth

You don’t mess around with New Year’s Eve. That’s hallowed territory, after all; every band knows that. It’s the cosmic Super Bowl for era-defining jams.

Greensky Bluegrass knows that, at any rate, and they’ve been known to throw down a titanic gem of a show at the terminus of each musical year. They've been doing this a while, and each time we flip the calendar they seem to be getting better. To end 2017, the band posted up at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago for three nights; the Dec. 31 show featured some spellbinding bob-and-weave setlist construction.

We spoke with Greensky bassist Mike Devol, a Cleveland native in his own right, who extolled the virtues of growing together with a dynamic band of friends (Michael Bont on banjo, Paul Hoffman on mandolin, Dave Bruzza on guitar and Anders Beck on "drop steel"). Now that New Year's is over, their winter tour is sprawling out across the Midwest and onward.

“[Chicago] hits close enough to home for us that it kind of felt like we were returning to our people,” Devol says, with Kalamazoo, Mich., on his mind. “New Year’s was fun for us. Holiday shows can be a handful sometimes, because in jam band world there’s sort of a requirement that they’re special. I think we’re always up to the task of trying to create some fun musical adventures. And all our fans get to see us in tuxedos. It was special for us.”

It’s also a resetting of a band’s internal clock. Because fans tend to chronicle the evolution of bands like Greensky in historical terms, it’s vital to look from 2017 to 2018 as at least some sort of pivot. It’s also nice, because the world outside of the Greensky homestead is apparent;y burning in hellfire at all hours.

“Besides all the political bullshit that sucked about 2017 and continues to suck so far in 2018,” Devol waxes, “for us, you know, it was a big year for certain—but kind of just another year for Greensky. We’re always trying to continue doing what we’re doing and make more music. We’re looking forward to doing it all again­—more and bigger in 2018.”

While he’s looking forward to the band’s usual festival slots from Telluride Bluegrass Festival to the Northwest String Summit, the biggest chapter-defining event lies on the horizon: Camp Greensky, to be held May 31 to June 2 somewhere in Michigan.

“We’re stoked,” Devol says. “I think it’s been a long time coming. … We hope to curate a really special event for our fans—that not only includes lots of Greensky [music], but lots of bands that we love too and know our fans are into too, and just creating a special environment for people to come and enjoy.” He couldn't get into many details over the phone, so do keep your eyes attuned to for more information on that front.

Indeed, the festival will allow Greensky a platform of their own building. They've put in enough years on the road to earn a canon of sorts, a robust catalog of evolving music that fans can cherish.

From the classics to the newer material, the band's improvisation approach gives them fresh opportunities nightly to revisit their craft. On 2016's Shouted, Written Down and Quoted, the band's latest album, Greensky saw themselves taking lessons from the stage and applying them to the studio. Instrumental sections stretch out like improvised jams, and Hoffman breathes even more emotion into his already introspective lyrics. It feels grander, in some way, than previous outings.

“Some of [those newer songs] really have taken on a lot of life,” Devol says. “'Living Over’ is like my favorite song to play with Greensky currently. And that’s cool, because you want the new songs to fill your cup just like you want the old classic go-to jams that we’ve done. Those are continually sort of like taking a new shape. Some songs [on Shouted, Written Down and Quoted] we haven’t been playing a lot live—like ‘More of Me,’ that we love and that’s a great album song but we don’t find as much room for in our live sets. And I wonder if we will.”

Of course, in jam band world, as Devol points out, the past is complemented by the future. There's always something new on the horizon, and Greensky is already working on the initial sketches of a new album. One imagines that those early stirrings will become more pronounced as the year's touring schedule gets under way.

“It's always an exciting time to sort of be able to visualize … what we can look forward to in the future of our material that we create with Greensky,” Devol says. “Even the songs we’ve been playing for five, six years are still sort of taking on new life. We spend time apart from each other, and when we come back we all kind of have some new thing we’ve been playing or some new way we’ve been approaching our instrument, and that breathes new life into the songs we’ve been playing forever. I think that’s kind of a cool ongoing evolution with Greensky.”

For Devol, the work itself is transformative. The music is simply the echo of how he and his bandmates have grown.

“I have a really interesting job and a really interesting role in that I’m the bass player for Greensky,” he says. “I can’t really think of anybody who plays quite like me, and I think that’s just because nobody has a job quite like mine. I can’t really be the rock-funk bass player that a lot of jam bands have, because we don’t build those types of textures. I mean we do, in our own way; we don’t have a drummer. Each of us has to fill the role of a lot of rock instruments, and it takes us doing it together. We also don’t play like bluegrass bands, really, so I can’t fall into that role. It’s been really fun for me.”

And it’ll be fun for Cleveland, too, as the city delivers a homecoming vibe to Devol, and as the band strikes up the opening notes to another moment in their history.

Greensky Bluegrass
8 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 7, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583.
Tickets: $24 ADV, $29 DOS, $34 balcony,

About The Author

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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