Greensky Bluegrass Returns to Pittsburgh Thursday
Bluegrass Juggernaut Comes to Stage AE With Billy Strings
PITTSBURGH — It doesn’t seem like a whole lot of time has passed since Greensky Bluegrass played a hole-in-the-wall bar in North Wheeling just over a decade ago.
But the Michigan-born bluegrass band has put many miles in the rearview mirror since then, and the band’s fan base has grown exponentially, especially in recent years.
The relentless road warriors have paved a grassroots following that has expanded to legions of new fans who pack into headlining shows across the country. Earning one fan at a time, GSBG has seen its name climb to the top of the bills at music festivals that boast the nation’s biggest acts among jam bands and today’s bluegrass heavyweights.
Their seventh full-length studio album, “All For Money” was released in mid-January — a tongue-in-cheek nod to their continuously growing success.
We caught up with Greensky’s dobro player, Anders Beck, last week before their show in Portland, Maine, kicking off the first night with Billy Strings supporting the band’s ongoing winter tour. Billy Stings will open the Greensky Bluegrass show this Thursday night when the band returns to Pittsburgh at Stage AE.
“We love playing in Pittsburgh,” Beck said. “There’s always been great crowds for us there with a lot of cool people — folks who are really into the music. We’ve always had really fun times there. Pittsburgh has been a Greensky stronghold in the country for a long time, so we’re super psyched to be back there.”
Along with Beck, the world-class musicians in the band include Paul Hoffman on mandolin and vocals, Dave Bruzza on acoustic guitar and vocals, Michael Arlen Bont on banjo and Mike Devol on upright bass and backing vocals.
Greensky Bluegrass has developed a reputation of delivering mind-bending shows that take the core of live bluegrass music and elevate it, stretch it and transform it into an almost psychedelic next-level size and space. Coming from a line of five acoustic string instruments, that spine-tingling near nuclear fission — especially to new listeners — is often unexpected, and likewise, unforgettable. Their shows are all unique, since the group uses the “jam band formula” of keeping it fresh and arranging one-of-a-kind set lists of songs each night.
So how do new fans keep getting caught in the gravitational pull of this string band juggernaut?
We asked Beck all about Greensky Bluegrass, their growing army of fans, the new album, touring highlights and the band’s meticulous methods of composing unique set lists for each show.
What would you say to a music fan — one who has never seen Greensky Bluegrass before — to encourage them to come check out one of your shows?
Anders Beck: “For me, it’s bluegrass instruments, so if you like bluegrass, you’re probably going to like what we do. If you don’t like bluegrass music, you’re still probably going to like what we do. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll show. It’s really about good songs, and it’s a unique experience. Our goal is to make sure you leave the show feeling better than you did when you got there.”
Can you describe your fan base?
Anders Beck: “No (laughs). The fan base has grown a lot over the past couple of years. There’s young kids, there’s older folks. So age-wise, it’s all across the spectrum. But I think that the thing that ties them together is that they’re interested in good, real music. It’s certainly like … a dancing, partying crowd (laughs). A Greensky show is an event — and that’s something that is exciting for us. As we’ve grow a little bit more, it’s becomes somewhat of a social event as well. People are hearing that Greensky is this cool show to go to, and it draws in people who are there for the first time, and they don’t quite know what to make of it. Obviously we want it to be a musical event, not a social event. But the bottom line is — people checking out the band for the first time is a positive thing.”
The new Greensky Bluegrass album, “All For Money,” was just released a couple of weeks ago. How have crowds responded to the new material so far on the tour?
Anders Beck “They seem to really like it. We sort of made up these versions of the songs with the live show in mind in a big way. A lot of the new songs have some pretty heavy jams in them — there are some improvisational moments in those songs. So it’s translating really well to the live shows, I think. And the response has been great. People are super excited about it, which is always a good feeling, because we’re super excited about it, too. There are some super deep Greensky fans who are able to listen to one of our studio albums and just know where in the song a jam will happen when we play it live. They hear, like, an implied jam. But on this record, we sort of said ‘why are we just holding space? Lets just go for it and play it like we’re playing live. So that’s kind of the way we created this one.”
And like the album title says, this is “All For Money?”
Anders Beck “Yeah right (laughs). We would be a lot richer if it was. ‘All For Money’ is really tongue-in-cheek. If you have any semblance of who we are or where we come from or where we’re at, it’s pretty clearly tongue-in-cheek (laughs).”
You guys seem to always be on the road with very few breaks. How did you find time to write and record the new album?
Anders Beck: “As far as the writing process, it sort of just happens over time. I think it’s been about two years since we recorded our last album. So over time since then, we’ve built the new tunes. We spent a total of almost 21 or 22 days in the studio over a couple of different time periods making the new album. So that’s really when we dig in and sort of turn it into an album, you know. The songwriting process is more of an individual thing, and then we all get together and try and turn those songs into a full Greensky thing. You know, like take it from say one of Paul’s songs that he just wrote on acoustic guitar and he’s got a pretty good idea about the words and the melody, then we get together to try to do our best to turn that into something … bigger. Like a Greensky song instead of a singer/songwriter song.”
Like many ‘jam bands’ on the road, your live shows are all unique. What’s the process of composing set lists for each show?
Anders Beck: “Mostly, for the last little while that we’ve been doing it, we’ve been doing about four shows a week — so we play Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. But on this tour, we’ve been playing more than that because of the album release thing. It’s a busy time (laughs). But in general, if we’re playing, say, four shows a week, we try to make each of those shows completely unique by not repeating any songs. And that’s kind of our traditional model.
“And then we look at what songs we played there before. Let’s say we’re talking about the Pittsburgh show — we try and look at what we played in Pittsburgh the last time we were there, and then we try not to play those songs, so we can mix it up from the last time. And then we’re also looking to not play anything we played the night before or a couple nights before that — so it’s kind of a relatively complicated algorithm! A pain in the butt! But it’s certainly worth it. I think as we’ve sort of developed this jam band following — it’s the jam band model. You play a different show every night. So even if there are songs you played before, you improvise differently on those songs.
“A lot of our backgrounds come from that sort of school of thought. So that’s the way we’ve developed our shows. That’s why people will come and see multiple shows a week. People will come on tour, and that’s important for us to consider.”
Do all the members of the band weigh in on developing each night’s set list?
Anders Beck: “It’s pretty democratic. It’s mostly Paul, Dave and I — just because we’re sort of the three ‘set list deciders.’ It’s easier to have three people as opposed to five people. It would be even less complicated if just one person did it, but it’s just too much work for one person, I think! But usually someone will start with their vision for the night, then the other two will weigh in, and by the time we’re done, it’s something different. It just develops over the course of the day, or sometimes we plan ahead far enough, but it’s usually just that day, and it kind of turns into what it’s going to be. Usually about five minutes before showtime, we have it figured out. Sometime it changes on stage — you never really quite know what’s going to happen.”
Greensky Bluegrass has seven full length studio albums now, and a host of covers that are played live. How many songs does the band have in its arsenal when out on tour?
Anders Beck: “I’m not really sure. There’s a lot of them. I would say maybe in the, like, 200-songs range? I’m not sure. There’s a master list, which I’ve never counted (laughs). And it’s funny because we all have different master lists that we’ve sort of made up. There’s one like spreadsheet that Paul can work from, and there’s another one that I have that’s just a list in my phone that I’ve sort of made up over time. Some of those, maybe say 200 songs, are songs that we may play like once a year. But, with the new album — we’re sort of breaking our own rules a little bit because we want to play that new material more. Mostly because we’re excited about it and it’s new and fresh for us. And also because people coming out to show — who have just heard the new album and are getting to know the new album really well — want to hear that material as well, so all those rules are a little bit out the window, because newer songs are getting played a fair amount more on this particular tour — it’s like an album release tour.”
But still, if you’re a hardcore Greensky Bluegrass fan, and you look online to see what songs the band played the night before you come to a show, is it a safe guarantee that none of those songs will be repeated?
Anders Beck: “It’s a pretty good guarantee. On this tour we played the same songs two nights in a row, but only sort of accidentally because on day of the album release, we decided the whole first set was just going to be the new album from front to back, and we had played some of those songs the night before, so we backed ourselves into a corner!”
Do you ever pull a song out of the air on any given day — one that you’ve never played live before — and take it to the stage that night?
Anders Beck: “Yep. Someone will be singing something at soundcheck, it will be like ‘oh yeah, that’s a cool song.’ But more often, if we start to go that way with a song, we’ll maybe give it a couple days of rehearsal. But it certainly happens — the day of show, sometimes, too. And hopefully, it’s an easy song in that case!”
So many touring musicians — especially those outside of the ‘jam band’ scene — play the same cookie-cutter show every time they hit the stage. How does that contrast with your method of operation?
Anders Beck: “We don’t get bored. I think it would be incredibly boring to be in a band that played the same set every night. Like a pop band thing — and I mean no disrespect to that, but, it’s just not our thing! I guess if you’d play the same show every night, you’d probably get really good at those songs — that would be the upside (laughs).”
You’ve had the opportunity to play with a lot of great musicians on the road and at music festivals over the years. What have some of the highlights been for you, personally?
Anders Beck: “For me, the biggest one — not just like name wise or because of importance to my personal history, but also musically — I felt was when Phil Lesh played a set of music with us at his place, Terrapin Crossroads, out in California. Because the Grateful Dead were always a really big musical influence on me and a lot of us. He was over 70 years old when he played with us, and just still at the very top of his game. He was so musical and was being so creative. In playing our songs with us, he was literally putting on a clinic and teaching us about our own songs. It was amazing. He’s just such a consummate musician to this day. That’s one that really got to me.
“But it’s just a crazy list — it’s shocking, the amount of people we’ve gotten to play with! (laughs) We got to share the stage with Willie Nelson, which was pretty cool. We played a couple of shows on his Outlaws Tour, and at the end of the night, he invited all of us up for a group sing-along both nights. So we would all get on stage, and there’s Willie right next to us, twinkling away. When Willie Nelson looks at you on stage you’re sort of like ‘ok, I did it!’ Whatever ‘it’ is, I’m not sure, but ‘I did it!’ He’s a fun dude. It was great to get to meet him. He’s really gracious and a super nice guy.”
What about your bucket list? Are there any venues you’d like to play or things you’d look forward to still doing musically?
Anders Beck: “Headlining Red Rocks was my bucket list. And now we’re doing three nights there. There was a long period when we were spending a lot of time looking forward to what may or may not happen. But now, I’m just really trying to live in the present moment and embrace the cool stuff that’s happening. Like now, we just sold out the Beacon Theater in New York City, which was certainly a bucket list venue, and the Ryman in Nashville. We’re playing places like that, so I have a hard time looking forward too much past that when day to day, amazing things are happening.”
The growth of Greensky Bluegrass has been incredible in recent years. How do you maintain authenticity?
Anders Beck: “We’ve grown a lot, but it’s been a pretty organic growth. As long as we’re true to ourselves, musically, that’s really all that matters. We’re trying to be just really true to ourselves and make the best music we can that’s interesting and exciting to us.”
And as true Greensky Bluegrass fans know, that honest and genuine approach undoubtedly resonates with a lot of good people.