Years before the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia was a dedicated banjo player. In 1964, he and a pal drove to Kentucky and auditioned for “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe’s band. Garcia didn’t get the gig, and when he got home to California, the dearth of pickers pushed him toward guitar-playing. The rest is history.
Since that time, plenty of musicians have traveled in the other direction, adapting a jam band ethos to traditional acoustic music. Michigan-based Greensky Bluegrass is currently playing the New England summer festival circuit (and a “secret” New Hampshire Fourth of July show — check twitter.com/campgreensky for details).
The band — Anders Beck on Dobro, banjo player Michael Arlen Bont, guitarist Dave Bruzza, Paul Hoffman on mandolin and bass player Mike Devol — was inspired by Garcia’s mid-’70s group Old and In the Way and his later collaborations with David Grisman.
“We weren’t steeped in tradition — we were one of those bands that came from the other side,” Devol said recently from his home in Kalamazoo. “Mike wanted to get a banjo and Dave started playing acoustic guitar because they were into the Dead. Bluegrass is in our name, but I often feel that the songs we’re writing aren’t bluegrass songs. They have a different texture.”
On the road, Devol said, the satellite radio plays Outlaw Country, indie station XMU, Jam On and (of course) the Grateful Dead channel. These eclectic listening tastes are reflected in Greensky Bluegrass’s original songs, most written by Hoffman and Bruzza. Indeed, the world-weary “Against the Days” and “What’s Left of the Night,” both from their last studio effort, Five Interstates (produced by Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone), share as much with Ryan Adams and Wilco as with Allison Krauss.
On the other hand, GSBG was named best bluegrass band at the 2006 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It’s this deft balance of modern instincts and old-school roots that sets them apart from many other purveyors of acoustic roots music.
One way the band puts a new spin on an old idiom is through its clever selection of cover songs. On All Access: Volume One, a live album released earlier this year, they fill Pink Floyd’s “Time/Breathe (Reprise)” with new life, and strip the artifice from “A Day In the Life” — though they do give the epic final note of the Beatles’ song a go.
They’ve been inspired to rework everyone from Journey to Talking Heads.
“If it somehow lends itself to bluegrass, or it’s so obscure you want to take it into it, we’ll do it,” Devol said. The band was in Seattle when the King of Pop passed. A pal from Railroad Earth texted the news. “We worked up an arrangement of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Heal the World’ — a Michael Jackson homage.”
Devol has a classical background and was a would-be manager when he began with the band. After studying the cello at Central Michigan University, he decided a different future was in order.
“I wasn’t really seeing myself with a career in cello,” he said, and opted instead to go to grad school with an eye toward working on the business side of the music industry.
“Greensky were buddies, I was a fan, I worked at the brewery they played at,” Devol said. When their bass player decided to leave to raise a family, they asked him to join the band. “They said, ‘Dude, you play the cello, right? Get a bass.’”
With Bruzza’s help, Devol began a two-month crash course.
“I had just come into Bela Fleck, Union Station, and jam bands who had that bluegrass side to them. But I received most of my bluegrass education in Greensky Bluegrass,” he said. “They gave me a bunch of albums, and Dave came over and taught me song after song. I learned 75 songs before I went out to play our first set.”
One thing Devol had to learn was the band’s free-spirited style.
“We know where we’re starting and where we’ll end up, but a number of our songs have sections where the actual direction we go is entirely improvisational,” he said.
“We do compositional stuff too. Where I come from, I respect what can be accomplished by premeditation. But you can make choices there and plan ahead if you’re in communication with your band members to make really cool things happen.”
The new live record, 26 songs comprising nearly two hours, captures one of the band’s recent hometown shows. It’s an effort they hope to repeat with future All Access releases. Says Anders Beck in the liner notes for the two-disc set, “it’s about the jams and the improvisation. Our live shows are where we are able to give our original songs a life of their own each night.”
Devol agrees: “There’s something fun that can be really powerful with going with what’s happening in the room. There’s a lot that factors to your energy. It can yield some amazing moments, where it’s hard to remember exactly what happened until you go listen to it after the show.”