Greensky Bluegrass @ Majestic Theater, December 30 & 31
On December 30 and 31, Michigan’s Greensky Bluegrass celebrated New Year’s at the Majestic Theater in Detroit. Although Greensky is still considered an up-and-coming act, this was no local party for friends and family. Rather, Greensky managed to turn Detroit into a destination for NYE 2011-2012 as fans had traveled from far and wide – even internationally – to ring in the New Year with a band whose gift for psychedelic improvisation and timeless originals is rivaled only by their reputation for throwing one helluva party.
[All Photos by Andrew Bender]
Opening both nights were The Macpodz out of neighboring Ann Arbor; and as in prior opening performances for Umphrey’s McGee and moe., they showed an amazing ability to kick off the party. Combining aspects of funk, jazz, rock, disco and various forms of infectious musical weirdness, the Macpodz eschew the usual guitar-driven jams for the danceable orchestration of keys and trumpet, percussion and bass.
The first night’s performance took place in the neighboring Magic Stick bar; half-way into the Macpodz hour long set, the 300+ capacity venue was already getting full in anticipation of the weekend’s headlining act. Greensky Bluegrass took the stage on December 30th to a smaller audience than they would play to the next night. Nevertheless, the Greensky diehards making up the bulk of the audience were treated to a truly blazing performance.
Opening with No Idea off of their newest studio album Handguns, Greensky displayed their blend of vocal harmonies, masterful arrangements and solid improvisational chops as they showcased both old and new originals. Mustachioed guitarist Dave Bruzza was sporting a new haircut, and even looked downright respectable, but his vocals and 6-string playing were as reliably down and dirty as ever.
In celebration of folk/bluegrass legend John Hartford’s birthday, Bruzza took lead vocal duties on cover of Steam Powered Airplane that led into a scorching cover of Bruce Hornsby’s King of the Hill that easily ranks among the best Greensky performances of that song to date. That song prominently featured Greensky’s ability to layer instruments while simultaneously alternating lead and rhythm parts in their jams. King of the Hill followed an oft-used format with the song’s final verse neatly wrapping up the song after an incredibly hot improvisational jam. Other highlights from the first night included blistering covers of Rod Stewart’s Young Turks and Reba McEntire’s Can’t Stop Now that had the entire room grooving hard with a sense of abandon that only the last weekend of year can bring. Closing out the second set was a cover of the Beatles’ She Came In Through The Bathroom Window that only further fueled anticipation for the next night.
A quick review of the Hidden Track guide to New Year’s Eve events nationwide revealed the Greensky Bluegrass show in Detroit as the only HT endorsed NYE event in the state of Michigan. Saturday night saw a large crowd ready for a throw down, although a number of concertgoers appeared less familiar with Greensky much less Bluegrass.
Greensky launched their NYE set with a cover of Bob Dylan’s When I Paint My Masterpiece remade into a Greesnky number courtesy of Bruzza’s raspy vocals and Beck’s ever-inspiring drop steel. Original numbers Wheel Hoss and Jaywalking followed with Hoffman on lead vocals; although not given an expansive improvisation treatment Jaywalking was well played, nonetheless as the Bruzza and Hoffman gears meshed in perfect synchrony. Hoffman also led vocals on a cover of Paul Simon’s Gumboots with a bit faster tempo than usual, albeit not quite up to the pace of the original. Bruzza’s 6-string and Devol’s bass kept perfect rhythm to Bont’s forceful yet complex banjo playing and Hoffman’s alternating strummed rhythm and plucked lead; Beck’s increasingly characteristic dobro lead was as difficult to pin down as a greased pig, and even more entertaining.
After a slower, more somber toned Bottle Dry, Greensky covered Duran Duran’s ’80s pop tune Hungry Like The Wolf. The song’s pop irony didn’t appear to register with many in the audience, or at least not with those younger than 30. And truth be told, that’s just the way that Greensky seems to prefer it, as many of their covers are lesser-known numbers that were never radio singles. In this way Greensky pays tribute to gifted songwriting with outstanding pop sensibilities while crafting their own unique blend of bluegrass madness.
Bont’s banjo, Beck’s effect-laden dobro, and Hoffman’s mandolin weave a seamless psychedelic tapestry of sound, all made truly danceable by Devol’s powerful bass lines and Bruzza’s crisp and efficient rhythm guitar. Weaned on the likes of the Grateful Dead and Phish, these seminal influences are clearly reflected in their jamming and improvisational style as they explore sound, noise, and space – but to do that in the context of freaking Hungry Like The Wolf is indeed remarkable. Despite the fact the song holds little more than novelty nostalgia value for this thirty-something, that is one track worthy of repeated listening.
Greensky Bluegrass – Hungry Like The Wolf
Original numbers 200 Miles to Montana and Don’t Lie followed with the latter providing another insane jam; Beck’s dobro lead in combination with the others’ driving but intricate rhythms compelled heads to bob and limbs to flail about in drunken New Years Eve abandon. After Hoffman announced to the audience that, “The midnight hour is close at hand,” the band closed the first set with a cover of Wilson Pickett’s In The Midnight Hour as Bruzza belted out the song backed by his bandmates as well as The Macpodz’ Jesse Clayton on keys and Ross Huff on trumpet.
Greensky Bluegrass – In The Midnight Hour
Coming back on stage with less than ten minutes until the stroke of midnight, Paul Hoffman led a rousing cover of the Isley Brothers’ Shout, still accompanied by Macpodz Huff and Clayton, whose contributions elevated the song far beyond bluegrass or soul. The song reached its crescendo as Hoffman and Co. sang, “a little bit louder now” perfectly at the stroke of midnight and balloons dropped into the celebration. Then, without missing a beat, the band broke into Smokey Robinson’s I Second That Emotion as couples danced and kissed, balloons bounced and popped, and the Motor City was introduced to a whole new take on the old school soul and R&B originally recorded just a few miles away.
To top that off, Greensky simply proceeded to tear the hell out their own songbook of original numbers including the epic and stirring All Four that features Hoffman’s impressive songwriting, “All my options are becoming fences, none of which include a gate.” Pig In A Pen, I’d Probably Kill You and How Far I’d Fall featured striking banjo work by Bont in tandem with alternating solos by Beck and Hoffman. Bassist Devol sang How Far I’d Fall leading one to hope for more by him in addition to his always steady, heavy bass lines. At one point during the second set, Hoffman observed that a pair of panties on the stage was a clear indication of a raging party.
Closing the set with the newer song Kerosene, sung by Bruzza, maintained the frenetic energy of the entire night and left the audience screaming for more. The encore brought another surprise as Hoffman sang lead on a cover of Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine whose soulfulness highlighted the “blue” in bluegrass. And what better way to show the Motor City some love but an intense cover of Prince’s Little Red Corvette, that had the entire Majestic Theater going all-out berserk.
The final song of the evening, the instrumental number Shucking The Corn, featured all five musicians and closed the party with a final sucker punch, bluegrass-style. Even though some in attendance may not have been hip to Greensky at the outset, their enthusiasm was readily apparent as the room was packed until the band called it quits shortly after 1:30. And after the smoke cleared, the mental fog lifts, and downing some ibuprofen, coffee, and hair o’ the dog it was all apparent – the Greensky Bluegrass run in Detroit was one of the hottest New Years Eve performances the Motor City has seen in recent years.
Set 1: When I Paint My Masterpiece, Wheel Hoss, Jaywalking > Gumboots, Bottle Dry, Hungry Like The Wolf, 200 Miles from Montana, Don’t Lie, In The Midnight Hour*
Set 2: Shout*, Second That Emotion*, All Four, Pig In A Pen, I’d Probably Kill You > How Far I’d Fall, Tarpology, What’s Left Of The Night, The Reverend, Kerosene
Encore: Ain’t No Sunshine, Little Red Corvette, Shuckin The Corn