Bluegrass virtuosos wow Westcott with craft

Greensky Bluegrass, a Michigan bluegrass quintet, fuses jam band-like influences into their unique style of newgrass music.

Greensky Bluegrass appears relaxed, almost listless, on stage. But the ear contradicts the eye as soon as their fingers pluck the first strings. In a show of careful craftsmanship, the youthful Michigan outfit served up a sonic smorgasbord Sunday evening at the Westcott Theater.

These boys embody a number of traditional bluegrass qualities—a five-piece band, impressive technique, vocals at once percussive and drawn out—but several aspects typical of the genre remain purposefully absent: few old ballads are among their repertoire, the banjo isn’t featured very often and no high, lonesome voice. Their name projects some contradiction, so the Bill Monroe-esque mandolin tremolo often sits adjacent to the dobro’s exploration of an Indian raga.  You could call them newgrass with a heavy jam band influence. But their dizzying skill far exceeds most other bands in that category.

Photo: Chris Janjic
Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass performs at The Westcott Theater on Sunday night.

The Greensky Bluegrass contingent turned out at Westcott on the band’s third trip to Syracuse. Their chops were immediately evident, especially in Paul Hoffman’s case. Hoffman’s mandolin picking was a marvel for someone so young, his skill lending theatrical depth to a fairly untheatrical performance. Hoffman uncharacteristically sat on a stool because of an ankle injury and pointed out that the stool enables storytelling, though he wasn’t exactly garrulous.

The opening number also included a virtuosic dobro solo from Anders Beck and Dave Bruzza’s well-timed guitar lick with distortion pedal.  Electronic manipulation seldom occurred, making it all the more effective.

Greensky fancies themselves in a genre of their own (doesn’t every band?), and whether or not this is true, their eclectic influences were clear. At times, Latin rhythms emerged from the bass; the dobro resembled a sitar in its modal styling and bent notes; high vocal harmonies from Kentucky were among jazz, boogie, Hawaiian and Australian influences.  Quotations of “Purple Haze” came among the Garcia-esque jam and provided an aural trip through time and geography. At the very least, this band is well versed in multiple musical traditions—an asset to any musician.  Their ability to construct accessible music by weaving all this together is artful.

In fact, their accessibility is especially impressive given the complexity of their music. The crowd stayed enraptured through long solos and abrupt transitions, lauding every climax and cadence. And making something extremely difficult sound easy is at the heart of bluegrass—the genre is generally understood as lowbrow, simple music, despite the extreme skill and technique exhibited by all the most obvious ambassadors. Perhaps most striking and the thing that does indeed separate Greensky from other newgrass bands is their adherence to the traditions of the Opry House

Certainly not least important was the experience: Greensky was simply a blast. There was not much tap dancing or palpable effort to entertain, but the music was more than sufficient to accomplish a great concert.  With a mix of intimacy and musical grandeur, two seemingly conflicting ideas, the band satisfied the Salt City’s sweet tooth.

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