Greensky Bluegrass performed Jan. 23 at the Theatre of Living Arts on South Street. The venue was packed almost to capacity. Based on the name, you may have already guessed this band plays bluegrass music. Bluegrass borrows from the country genre but adds a twist of folk. Bluegrass and country music are a big part of the southern culture, so I was surprised to see so many fans up north. I later learned that the band’s home base is Kalamazoo, Mich. — surprising, given the style of music they perform. Bluegrass music can be upbeat and exhilarating as well as slow and mellow. The songs sing of simple things like love and loss.
Greensky Bluegrass consists of five musicians. Dave Bruzza plays the guitar, Anders Beck plays the dobro, Mike Devol plays the upright bass, Mike Bont plays the banjo and Paul Hoffman plays the mandolin. The band was originally formed in 2000, with Anders, the latest member, officially joining in 2008.
You may be wondering what exactly a dobro is. The instrument can sometimes be referred to as a resophonic guitar. It is a guitar played like a piano, except instead of pressing on keys, Anders plucks with small, metal finger picks. He has three picks on each hand: one on the thumb, one on the index finger and one on the middle finger. The guitar is not hung with its face to the audience but with it lying face up so that the musician can play it like a keyboard.
The whole group is extremely talented, but I personally enjoyed the mandolinist, Hoffman, the most. His fingers were ablur as they moved so swiftly across the strings. The band also had a light-up background that resembled long strands of grass. The colors changed but were often set to blue, a clever play on the band’s name.
The music that the group played when they were just jamming out was probably the best part of the show. They would begin with a familiar song and then in between verses each member would simply riff on his instrument. Each of these extended improvisations worked well when strung together during different parts of a single song. Every instrument has its own voice and each one stood out so clearly. I could really see how much they loved playing. The way they swayed with their instruments exposed how deeply they were listening to the vibrations they were making. These men are all masters of their musical devices. Before they came to Philadelphia, I was unaware of this band. I am so happy that the Northeast has ears tuned to the South. The TLA was a great venue for this band and its crowd.
Greensky Bluegrass began their journey of fame in 2006. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition awarded them with a chance to play the main stage that following summer. Since then they have produced four studio records. The last record they made, “Handguns,” came out in 2011. If you don’t enjoy country music, I suggest you try out some bluegrass. It’s got a bit of a different taste and a lot more soul.