The power of music lies in its vibration. Sound is literally waves of pressure. When these waves impact our bodies, which are merely arrangements of molecules in various densities, we can feel it. Even those molecules are mostly open space, and the cavities in our bodies are sensitive to vibration, especially when amplified to concert proportions. And, because we are cerebral beings, music has the additional capacity to make us feel things, even without cognitive content. That’s why music, like bluegrass for instance, can sound happy and bright at times and at others sound melancholy, longing and desperate. Add some carefully wrought lyrics from a brilliant poet like Greensky Bluegrass’ principal songwriter, Paul Hoffman, and you have an art form that resonates on the heartstrings as well.
Greensky is a quintet formed in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2000; founding members Michael Arlen Bont on banjo, Dave Bruzza on guitar, and Paul Hoffman on mandolin, have been together from the outset. Bassist Mike Devol signed on in the fall of 2004 and dobro player Anders Beck joined in 2008. The band has released seven studio albums and three live albums on its own Big Blue Zoo label. The band tours constantly, and in two decades on the road has honed its concerts into a showcase of blistering musicianship, soulful singing, poignant, meaningful lyrics and passionate performance. Its use of audio effects like chorus, reverb, echo, delay and even distortion on acoustic instruments creates a psychedelic, 3D soundscape. Combined with a dazzling world-class light show. these elements truly deliver all the feels.
A 2019 album, All For Money, is an exploration (tongue-in-cheek, in the case of the title track) of the ways the band’s success has changed its members’ lives. Though not necessarily autobiographical, the songs take a frank look at road-worn themes like lost love, fidelity, anxiety, isolation, alcoholism and wanderlust.
“Yeah, we've played it a couple times, pretty fun spot,” Hoffman said about Jannus Live. “We've had some great crowds there. I guess March isn't really the winter anymore, but we've been there when it's pretty cold everywhere and we haven't been playing outside for a while, so it's nice.”
Read our Q&A below.
The big news is that sometime this year is your 20th anniversary of the band.
Yeah, pretty wild to think about how long we've been playing together. October 31, Halloween party, 2000, was our first quote-unquote “gig.” That's our recollection of what we would call our first gig. Shortly after that we played a couple bars in town and stuff too. But yeah, 20 years.
Can you tell us a little bit about how things have changed for you all? Your life on the road, your life as band mates over the last 20 years, what the evolution has been like?
Well, I hope that we're a better band for starters. We've made a lot of records, so we know a lot more material now. We've gone through quite the slew of different vehicles over the years, you know, from driving ourselves in my 4Runner to now, in tour buses, but everything in between as well. We play less shows than we did at one point. But I think that is kind of the trajectory of the industry and what it is to be a band. You play any small town or Podunk wherever, try and turn on as many people to your music as possible and then start playing bigger venues and more central locations.
It's awesome to be able to play in some marquee venues, like the Beacon Theater (in New York City) and the Tabernacle (Atlanta) and put on a much more orchestrated show with lights and more thought out setlists than when we were just playing around one mic, just kind of picking and having fun.
Would you say your music has evolved, not away from, but beyond bluegrass as a result of your maturation process?
Over the years our interests in other types of music have become more present in the way we write, and the way we perform music we didn't write, that maybe skew us more towards a rock and roll band. But really, we have just become more ourselves in a lot of ways, some of those are still very bluegrassy, but then some of them are very much not.
How do you write, and sing so beautifully, about such heavy themes?
I think it's just human things that everyone thinks about a lot, you know: regret, fear, burden of responsibility, the pressure of love and all that kind of stuff. They all kind of become the same thing if you think about it and sing and write about it enough. It's interesting how even positive and negative feelings can sometimes be very similar when analyzed.
What do you consider your responsibility towards your fans, given the weight of that emotional baggage that everyone carries around?
You know, that is a thing there, and I think that's what I was really trying to write about with this last record, and the song “All for Money,” is that sort of juxtaposition of those two feelings of the burden of responsibility but also the gift of success and the blessing there. Kind of a hard thing to grapple with. Fulfilling people's expectations is harder than winning them over when they know nothing.
Our shows are about fun, and it's supposed to be a good time, and it's a high energy thing and, you know, it can be demanding to present that. But I'm so grateful for it because it's a freaking blast for us. So, to have found a following of people who dig what we do is—we just feel lucky, I guess. Sorry, it's just damn awesome.
We always ask musicians where they find their passion and what keeps them out on the road. And, what you would say to somebody who's never seen you before?
Music is my catharsis. It makes me feel better and it's what I like to do. And I love the in-the-moment feeling of improvising, and taking risks, and being passionate about my music. And I love that people share that experience and are passionate for the same reasons. I think that's just an awesome, grounding thing, to be synchronized with the fans in that way. I need it the same way they do. I think the thing to say to people who haven't seen us is, expect to have some fun and hear some long songs.
Follow @cl_music on Twitter to get the most up-to-date music news, concert announcements and local tunes. Subscribe to our newsletter, and listen to us on WMNF 88.5-FM’s “Radio Reverb” program every Saturday from 4 p.m.-6 p.m.