[“Daisy May” Erlewine]
Opening for Greensky was ironically named Michigan roots music supergroup The Rookies, friends of Greensky formed it seemed just for this occasion. The Rookies included regionally renowned folk-roots duo Seth Bernard and ‘Daisy’ May Erlewine, guitarist Josh Davis and bassist Dominic John Suchyta from Steppin’ in It, as well as songstress Rachel Davis, and jazz/world music percussionist Mike Shimmin. Their set provided a great start to the party the as each musician had a turn leading the band for his or her own songs. Overall, the Rookies provided a great showcase of some of the best talent the state has to offer including tremendous vocals by Erlewine and Rachel Davis, and Mike Shimmin’s great cover of REM’s Everybody Hurts. The Rookies’ tremendous, set-closing, performance of the Beatles’ I’ve Got a Feeling both captured the essence of the moment, and did a killer job in warming up the crowd.
Looking sharp in vests and ties, and sporting moustaches for the occasion, Greensky Bluegrass opened their two-set NYE show with guitarist Dave Bruzza singing I’m Still Here, originally penned by the late newgrass legend John Hartford. And with that, the band seemed to declare that no matter how bad things have been – in the state of Michigan or elsewhere – we’re not going anywhere. Tim O’Brien’s newgrass number Climbing Up a Mountain followed, with mandolin player Paul Hoffman’s intricate playing leading off. Hoffman and Bruzza traded vocals before dobro player Anders Beck shined for the first, but certainly not only time that night.
Next was Hoffman singing a solid version of Greensky original Reverend, which was followed by a new song I’ll Probably Kill You. The latter evoked a ragtime-meets-bluegrass feel as the band members’ vocal harmonies combined with rhythms courtesy Bruzza’s 6-string and Mike Devol’s bassline that provided a backdrop to Hoffman and banjo player Michael Bont’s respective picking. No Idea, a darker, folk-country tinged tune featuring Hoffman on lead vocal duties was less well received by the crowd who seemed not to appreciate the less energetic and celebratory number despite a solid performance.
The same cannot be said for their cover of the instrumental song Tarpology, which showcased some of the real improvisational and innovative aspects of the band for the first time of the night. I was particularly impressed by the inspired but restrained use of effects by Bruzza and Hoffman in the number as mandolin, guitar, dobro, and banjo mimicked and echoed each other in a way far more commonly found in jazz and jam bands than traditional bluegrass. All the while, Devol’s basslines laid solid foundation for the others to layer and weave their jam.
Closing the first set with a tasty psycho-grass sandwich provided another major musical highlight of the night. First, the band smoothly transitioned from the fast-tempo Broke Mountain Breakdown, complete with audience hootin’ and hollerin’, into a far more funky and cerebral jam again augmented by electronic effects. In the Dead’s best tradition of coming out of Space, Greensky then seemingly out of nowhere started playing Sam Cooke’s 1962 single Twistin’ the Night Away. The classic R&B song featured the distinctively sweet vocals of May Erlewine and Rachel Davis – both of whom wore fake moustaches for the song – before Bont and Bruzza led them back to finish Broke Mountain Breakdown. It was one hell of a way to end the first set.
The band opened the second set with their song Just to Lie off of their 2008 album Five Interstates, produced by Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth. However, their cover of Prince’s When Doves Cry that followed was truly something else. I’d previously seen them perform the song in September when they played the Ark in Ann Arbor, but the New Year’s Eve performance really blew me away. They slowly jammed into the song with Bont’s banjo and Hoffman’s mandolin layering over Beck’s dobro and Bruzza’s effect laden acoustic guitar before breaking into the song, which was again followed by a long, spacey, improvised jam.
Greensky original What’s Left of the Night aptly followed as the band’s final song of 2009; the song blended into the twelve o’clock countdown, complete with a green and blue balloon drop, and the band’s spirited take on Auld Lang Syne. Seth Bernard and May Erlewine joined the band at the mic for Greensky’s first song of the new decade, All Four, which was quite a barnburner and a great way to start off the year as mandolin, banjo, and Beck’s resonant guitar really brought the song together.
How Far I’d Fall For You, with bassist Mike Devol on lead vocals for the first time I’ve ever seen, was a welcome new bluegrass song. Following solid performances of older and newer originals, Old Barns and Better Off, drummer Mike Shimmin joined the band for the remainder of the set, starting with an upbeat Less Than Supper. However, it was the set closer Train Junkie that plastered a monster smile on my face – Greensky’s tight improvised style over Shimmin’s impressive kit drumming took the song to a remarkably different place. Bruzza’s country and western-tinged vocals provided the framework for a frenetic jam with strong solos and performances by all 4 musicians backed by Shimmin’s driving beats and Devol’s creative basslines.
The encore, Big Railroad Blues, originally penned by Noah Lewis and popularized in some circles by the Grateful Dead, also featured Shimmin as well as Josh Davis on guitar for “some riffin’.” As Hoffman belted out the lyrics, Beck’s dobro slid around and was met by mandolin and electric guitar. The song was a great encore choice given the band’s affinity for Dead covers (one shared by most everyone else in attendance) and truly underscored a huge part of what Greensky Bluegrass is all about: using bluegrass instruments as a framework for creative approaches to making music and throwing out all the rules and preconceptions. New Years Eve was further proof of the reasons the band continues to draw an ever greater following.
Set 1: I’m Still Here, Climbing Up a Mountain, Reverend, I’ll Probably Kill You, No Idea, Tarpology, Radio Blues, Out of Control, Can’t Stop Now, Broke Mountain Breakdown > the Funk jam > Twistin’ the Night Away > Broke Mtn Breakdown*
Set 2: Just To Lie, When Doves Cry, What’s Left Of The Night > NYE countdown > Auld Lang Syne All Four, ** How Far I’d Fall For You, Old Barns, Better Off, Less Than Supper, # Train Junkie, #
Encore: Big Railroad Blues *** #
* w/Rachel Davis & May Erlewine
** w/Seth Bernard & May Erlewine
*** w/Joshua Davis
# w/Mike Shimmin (drums)
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