One of the truest measures of a band’s worth isn’t how well they write or how well they play; but rather how they handle the expectations their genre forces upon them.
For some, this can be stifling as their creative freedom crashes against the popular mores being espoused by the similarly inclined. Many musicians simply give up. They turn out record after record of generic sounding crap before fading into oblivion, remembered only by their mothers and their poor children who are forced to listen to stories about the time back in the day when daddy was cool and had long hair.
For Greensky Bluegrass, the five-piece Michigan band, lazy or generic are hardly descriptions that fit.
Kicking off their show recently at 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., it was abundantly clear that these were five guys reveling in the artistic liberty afforded by their recent successes. With freedom comes confidence, evidenced by the fact that the band can get away with playing material that hasn’t appeared on any record and still get an almost 1,200 person crowd to dance and sing along with them.
One of these songs, “Leap Year,” was GSBG at their best. Built on Mike Devol’s typically sumptuous bass line, the way the song alternates between full-throttle bluegrass and more pared back, almost soulful rock is perhaps the greatest proof that this is a band unencumbered by tradition.
With a room as packed as it was, Greensky could undoubtedly feel the crowd’s anticipation. Luckily for those present, the band more than delivered. The fast paced hit “Don’t Lie” featured a jam session with finger bleeding picking and strumming that had every body in the room moving.
Being the adept showmen they are, they then pulled back and launched into more comfortable territory with the classic bluegrass hit “Handguns” featuring Anders Beck on the dobro, or “drop steel” as he calls to it. By far one of GSBG’s signature sounds, Beck’s dobro playing has that honky tonk feel one would expect from Hank Williams, while still keeping in touch with bluegrass roots that would be sure to impress Jerry Douglas himself.
While they kept everyone itching for more originals, they could not help but ramp up the atmosphere. GSBG’s rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” energized the room, and it’s not hard to understand why. Their ability to pair bluegrass with a rock and roll anthem had the crowd singing such an infamous tune at the top of their lungs in what was a definite highlight.
Perhaps more than most styles of music, bluegrass has an ability to transport a listener beyond their own small space in time to a place a little more genuine. Listening to GSBG in the middle of Washington, D.C., a town drowning in platitudes and bullshit, it was hard not to think that this was about the most honest thing we’d heard in months.
William Baldwin contributed to this review.