In the midst of a bleak winter – the rainiest in Seattle’s history and that’s not an area known for December sun – and fighting off fears about worst case scenarios, I made a New Year’s resolution that wouldn’t be popular around these parts. I was going to limit how much music I was going to see. In order to do that, I gave myself a one show per venue rule. While my positive spin on this was that it was making seeing music an active endeavor, being forced to make an intentional decision to see something instead of just going out because it was there, ultimately it was coming out of a bad place. It took ritual to come to the rescue.
Greensky Bluegrass have a tradition known as Casual Wednesday. It might only come around every seven days, but concerts in the middle of the work week always have an extra component of silliness to them. My Greensky shows had been skewed to the weekend side, so with extra vacation days stored up, why not take a detour in my planned Colorado trip to drive down to Taos and see what this is about firsthand.
The Taos Mesa Brewing Mothership is a venue that could create desert love in anyone. It is situated outside of town along US 64. A few miles to the west of the venue is the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, an epic span rising 565 feet above the river, one that originally was called the Bridge to Nowhere because they couldn’t afford to build the rest of the road. That’s what the desert is though: massive open space, roads that connect nowhere to a different nowhere, and the ever present looming specter of death if one makes one wrong turn. It’s fascinating and mystical; even a brewpub can have that effect if it’s just sitting in a field surrounded by mountains, with little but a campground for its neighbors.
When you’re playing a place this magical, there’s an implied contract. You must prove yourself worthy of the venue. There might only be a few hundred people scattered around – some by the stage, some inside at the bar, others by the fire pit because, why not dance by a fire in the desert night? – but playing on a clear evening on one of the sacred nights of the Jewish calendar makes it feel like anyone could be listening.
Perhaps it was the small crowd or maybe it was the altitude (7100 feet), but this Wednesday inspired chattiness with the bands. During Fruition’s set, Mimi told a story about the previous time they had played the venue. On that occasion there was no power and they were forced to plan an acoustic set. The last song she remembered singing was Neil Young’s “Albuquerque,” a song they then proceeded to play with all three singers taking a verse. Casual Wednesday was barely underway and we already had a rarity played.
While Greensky’s show had some epic jams – mainly the “Train Junky” in the first set, an interesting extended version of “Windshield,” and a 17 minute “Leap Year” that would have been worth the drive by itself – what really stuck out about this show was the looseness. The “Casual Wednesday” banter was largely about a wizard hat with Mickey Mouse ears that Dave Bruzza bought for Anders on a band trip to Disneyland. Between the jokes about that, massive teases throughout the set – “1999” and “Lovelight” in “Ain’t No Bread in the Breadbox,” “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” in “Fredrico,” and “Casual Wednesday” whenever people felt like it – the fun quotient almost hid just how great the earlier jams were.
Thursday was the warmest day of the week, but both Fruition and Greensky Bluegrass took the day off. That didn’t mean that this was a day free of music. Brad Parson was playing with Grant Farm at Cervantes Masterpiece. Portland’s favorite black cowboy clad singer was also joined by 60% of Fruition (Jay Cobb Anderson, Kellen Asebroek, and Tyler Thompson) to make this the perfect way of spending the day between.
This was a night with no bluegrass influences. While elements of country occasionally wandered into the set, this was largely straightforward rock and roll. In fact this set could serve as a history of the medium as there were songs in the style of Buddy Holly, a calypso song, the blues stylings of “Stay Close,” and covers of artists from Ted Hawkins to Nirvana. The set closed with another Neil Young cover – “Cortez the Killer” – that had Brad, Jay Cobb, and Grant Farm all competing as though they were on a reality show where the winner gets to join Crazy Horse on their next tour. In a week full of highlights, this song on the theoretical off night managed to stand out.
So you’re a band that is entering a growth spurt but you love playing small, intimate venues. How can you balance that? If you’re Greensky Bluegrass, you try the experiment known as the two-day multi-venue pass. Red Rocks holds 9000 people, the Boulder Theatre one tenth of that, but by playing both venues on consecutive days and requiring people to buy tickets to both if they want to see the smaller show, you make it harder to scalp and also make sure that the tickets to the smaller show fall into the hands of your most diehard fans.
The one thing this system does though is to create a crowd dichotomy. The smaller venue is going to be the most obsessed fans while the larger is likely to be skewed more casual. Do you change your shows as a result, playing rarities for the obsessive and the big hits for the Saturday night special? While that would be one approach, they mixed it up both nights.
Forgotten songs don’t get played for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes they didn’t work live. The band might be burnt out on them. Occasionally it’s as simple as them simply forgetting how good the older songs are as they continue to write. Why there’s many reasons song drop out, there’s one commonality to why songs stay in rotation; they’re the ones that are really working for the band. As much fun as seeing songs for the first time is, it was the end of the first set with the ridiculously danceable covers of “Time” and “Dancing in the Dark” and the beginning of the second with extended versions of “All Four” and “Worried About the Weather” that are worthy of endless relistening.
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