It’s been a rough winter here in the Pacific Northwest. Between the need to go out and protest and the endless rain – Seattle weather blogger Cliff Mass has been constantly posting that we’re not imagining it; this really has been an exceptionally chilly and grey period even by our standards – it’s been difficult to want to do anything but sit in the house and have extended conversations with our cats. While I have managed to drag myself out a few times, inertia has been hard to beat. So when Greensky Bluegrass announced their Pacific Northwest run, instead of jumping on it like I would normally do, I hemmed and hawed a lot. Eventually though, I asked for the day after the Thursday Showbox show off, found my Camp Greensky shirt, and headed downtown.
When I first discovered Greensky Bluegrass, while there were a few originals that I loved (“Old Barns,” “200 Miles From Montana,” etc.), I found myself mainly focusing on two aspects of their performances: the amusing bluegrass renditions of classic rock songs that peppered the setlists and the jams that would really transcend what an acoustic band should be able to play. While those two aspects are still important to their show, in the meantime they put out Handguns; If Sorrows Swim; and Shouted, Written Down & Quoted. With songs such as “Don’t Lie,” No Idea,” “Jaywalking,” “All Four,” “Windshield,” “Kerosene,” “Demons,” “Leap Year,” “Miss September,” “Past My Prime,” “Run or Die,” and “Living Over” , this was one of the strongest collection of originals that I can remember a band in our scene having in decades. This is what catapulted Greensky from a band that I enjoyed seeing at a festival to one that I would go out of my way to see… well when I wasn’t under a deep depression.
If I had been able to remember this, I would have been quite excited to attend the Seattle show, but instead I walked in terrified that they wouldn’t be able to break through the gloom hanging overhead. By the middle of the first set and an extended take on “Worried About the Weather,” the weight was gone. While there would be extended dance jams later in the night, this was a more mellow groove punctuated by Paul Hoffman’s mandolin solo. It didn’t overwhelm as much as remind. “Hey, remember me? I’m live music. You love me!” As the set continued to play favorites of mine (“Just to Lie” with the little quote from Fruition’s “Labor of Love,” making up for me missing the full cover of it the night before, “Windshield,” Take Cover”), I couldn’t remember that there was ever a time when I faced the idea of seeing this show with anything other than pure bliss. But the set wasn’t over. With the pride of Charm City – Cris Jacobs – sitting in for the set closing cover of the Travelling Wilbury’s “Handle With Care,” the full power of the band was revealed. The great thing about Greensky’s playing is that they get their electric sound via judicious use of pedals. That means that they can switch modes in the amount of time that it takes to hit them. If Anders Beck and Jacobs trading dobro and electric guitar solos is followed by a more traditional mandolin and acoustic guitar led section which is then succeeded by a loud pedal driven electric jam, the contrast between the sections makes them all stand out more. The peaks are louder and the spaces between are more beautiful. It’s a trick that I can’t resist.
Jamband shows usually have a dichotomy between the songs and the jams. Chaos and order fight each other, always running the risk of becoming too tilted to one side and becoming formless and confusing or predictable and boring. Adding the electric/acoustic axis to this creates an additional dimension, like when the fast but beautiful jam of “Broke Mountain Brokedown,” first switched into a louder mode and then found its way into “After Midnight.”
With the second set concluding “Don’t Lie,” hitting another ridiculous peak, a somewhat sacrilegious comparison comes to mind. While they don’t have the song catalog, and saying this doesn’t mean that I expect a big leap to come – although Greensky is seeing a constant increase in popularity – what their current style reminds of more than anything is 1994 Phish. Between the intense peaks along the lines of the 94 “Split Open and Melt” and “Stash” jams, a pretty well balanced mix of jam and songs providing the best moments, and a rewarding for those who pay attention to detail – the Crystal Ballroom show opened with “The Boys Are Back in Town” to express their delight at returning to Portland; they’d then proceed to make references to it throughout the night. Other songs were modified to make a reference to a reference to popular fan Max Berde or have teases (“Contact,” “Harpua,” and Greensky’s own “Kerosene” were teased in the encore). – there’s an excitement around Greensky that’s fascinating to see. With a small but dedicated group doing actual tours and interesting fan created merchandise, if I were twenty years younger, it would be quite tempting to drop everything and hit the road.
Even though that path is closed to me right now, I was so blown away by Seattle’s show that I groveled for tickets for the following night. The close-knit community came through, and we headed down I-5. Much to our surprise, the eternal clouds finally gave way around Centralia and we were treated to stunning views of Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood. Greensky defeated the weather. More than that, they defeated my mood. These shows were so uplifting that after a long winter of not seeing music, I went out twice more in the next 10 days. That’s the real power of music. It didn’t just provide a fun evening to distract during a dark time; it created an escape.
 That isn’t even an exhaustive list of the songs I love on these releases. I decided I would limit myself to four per album
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He now tweets and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page
His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and his Create Space store.