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Greensky Bluegrass Push Boundaries at the Palace

Greensky Bluegrass
Photo: Andrew Bruss

What comes to mind when you think of “bluegrass?” When confronted with that question, many think of straw hats, hoedowns and banjos. Perhaps the phrase conjures up images of godfather Bill Monroe, or the radio-friendly stars Mumford and Sons. There may be pieces of truth in some of these perceptions, but, as is the case with all stereotypes, they lack the nuance to truly represent the depth, complexity, and history of the genre they’re associated with.

The world of bluegrass has expanded and evolved tremendously since the days of Monroe and his legendary bands. Many stars and scenes have come and gone, new sounds have been incorporated, and movements, some rejected initially, and others embraced, have molded the genre into the diverse ecosystem in which it currently exists.

Leading the genre today are groups with traditional leanings and more progressive proclivities. They are led by men and women, upstarts and old favorites. The Punch Brothers meld bluegrass instrumentation with classical structures. Locals Trampled by Turtles push high BPM slamgrass. The genre-defying Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn continue to churn out albums that balance complexity with a deft melodic touch. The faces of the genre are many, and the state of the genre strong.

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One of the most exciting younger groups to emerge from this pack in recent years has been Greensky Bluegrass. Hailing from Kalamazoo, Michigan, the quintet skillfully fuse bluegrass, folk, psychedelia, and old-fashioned rock-and-roll in a way quite unlike any other group I’ve come across. Many consider them a jam-band, which is fair because extended improvisation is a big part of what they do well.  But that characterization is limited in that it neglects their stellar songwriting chops. Regardless of how you define the band, it’s hard to deny they’ve become a force to be reckoned with; playing big venues around the world and releasing albums that chart high and move many.

Of course, like many bluegrass and “jam” bands, their live show is their calling card, integral to understanding the Greensky experience. On this Friday night, downtown Saint Paul was given the full Greensky experience, all at the buzzing Palace Theater.

The show was opened by a band named “Ghost Light.” Existing and rooted firmly in the jam scene rather than in any sort of bluegrass background, they were an interesting, but reasonable choice to open the show. Though they’re relatively new, having played together for less than a year, they’re a supergroup of sorts, with many members (most notably guitarist Tom Hamilton) being familiar faces to some in the jam world. Going into their set, I was most curious to find out if the new group’s onstage performance would live up to their considerable talent.

The set opened with a Hamilton original. “Streets of Brooklyn,” a tune from the catalog of Hamilton’s band “American Babies,” had a bit of a heartland rock feel. While the song established good pace, the set took a little while to really get going. In fact, it would be about twenty minutes before the band really hit their stride, which they found during a monster cover of Radiohead’s “There There.” At different points, the cover was equal parts visceral and ambient, the arrangement dynamic and engaging. The song marked a pivot point in the set, after which the energy levels and crowd excitement would only rise.

Greensky opened their first set with “Roberta,” an older instrumental that I hadn’t seen them play live before. The song was more bluegrassy than some of their later offerings but hinted at what was yet to come, with warm tones and lots of solos.

Song two was the even older “Grow Bananas.” It was a great fit for mandolinist Paul Hoffman’s voice and playing. He and guitarist Dave Bruzza alternated lead vocal duties, each bringing their own strengths and weaknesses. Interestingly enough, while I usually enjoy Hoffman’s soulful delivery a little bit more, during this set I preferred the Bruzza songs, specifically the more traditional sounding “200 Miles from Montana,” a standout track in a set with many of them.

After “While Waiting,” one of the highlights of the night came in the form of a surprise sit-in by Hamilton and Ghost Light keyboard/piano player Holly Bowling. They came on in the middle of an excellent run through “Dancing in the Dark,” the Springsteen classic, and stayed through Greensky original “I’d Probably Kill You,” and a truly epic set-closing cover of the Dillard’s “Reuben’s Train.”

Set two continued that pattern, with many well-constructed songs that segued into one another, and scorching jams that kept the audience dancing all night long. A couple of well-paced crowd pleasers started the set, with the latter, the funkier “Miss September,” eliciting a particularly joyous response from the audience.

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Following a few more songs and longer jams, including a cover of John Hartford’s “Steam Powered Aeroplane,” the group circled back to another crowd pleaser: “Better off,” a standout from one of their better albums, 2011’s Handguns, before the short but sweet “Blood Sucking F(r)iends.”

The set ended with a series of lengthy jams, and fortunately, they were some of the strongest of the night. The set closing “Kerosene” was one of the best songs and jams of the whole show, showcasing the talents of the entire band.

The encore tipped the scales back to short and sweet. Rather than playing one more extended jam or barnburner, they decided to honor the state, with a Bob Dylan cover. This itself isn’t all that original (bands have been covering Dylan in Minnesota for decades), but their selection, the pretty “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You,” was tasteful and surprising in its own way.

The fact that the set ended with a ballad of sorts rather than a banger, and a song from Nashville Skyline rather than a more conventionally popular record was consistent with the band’s style-breaking expectations at all points. It was a fitting end to a fun night, and one I won’t soon forget.

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