Greensky Bluegrass stretches boundaries of genre


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If you want to hear something that stretches the boundaries of bluegrass music, you have to think outside the cigar box guitar.

Tonight, Pittsburgh welcomes festival favorites Greensky Bluegrass back to the Rex Theater on the South Side.

“We’ve played the Rex Theater four or five times,” said Anders Beck, who plays the dobro. “We just love that place. Great people, great venue, great sound system, and the crowd there is always awesome.”

Mr. Beck points out that Greensky Bluegrass hails from “the bluegrass hotbed of Kalamazoo, Mich.” Formed in 2000, the group’s other members are Michael Arlen Bont on banjo, Dave Bruzza on guitar, Mike Devol playing the upright bass, and Paul Hoffman on the mandolin.

What attracts Michigan men to what many consider to be “mountain music”?

“It’s kind of a player’s music,” Mr. Beck said. “It has a jazz aspect, in that a lot of it is based on improvisation, but in bluegrass, as opposed to jazz, those improvisations are done in short 30-second spurts. Of course, we’ve decided to lengthen them to more like the jazz length because we enjoy improvisation and that nature of music.

“We got into bluegrass by listening to albums, and a lot of the guys who were our heroes have now become our friends, which is kind of cool. Sam Bush, David Grisman.

“And then there’s the Grateful Dead influence, you know, Jerry Garcia playing the banjo, and the way that band sort of turned on an entire generation to bluegrass.”

So it’s not a genre limited to the hills of Appalachia. In fact, Mr. Beck said, Greensky Bluegrass has played to packed houses and festivals all across the country.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “There’s something about the music that people really enjoy.”

But what you’ll hear tonight at the Rex ain’t your grandpappy’s bluegrass. Jambase.com reviewed the band, saying “Greensky Bluegrass hits timeless targets with deadly accuracy while simultaneously veering off the tired and true highway.”

“To be clear,” Mr. Beck warned, “we stretch the boundaries of bluegrass relatively significantly. Perhaps that’s why people enjoy what we’re doing. But the bottom line is that we’re still doing it on banjos and mandolins.

“There’s many subgenres. I can only speak to what we do, taking bluegrass and using it as a voice to do our own original music. And I think that that is growing. You think about bands like Mumford & Sons — while they sort of started playing bluegrass music, they also became a top pop band the last couple years as well.

“I don’t liken us exactly to that, but we’re closer to that than we are to the traditional bluegrass festivals. The ones that we sort of jokingly call ‘the bluehairs in lawnchairs.’ Those aren’t our people

“Our crowds are young, and it’s a big old dance party. A unique thing, for sure.”

Still, the band has yet to take this traditional American music outside of America.

“We haven’t gone overseas, but we’ve threatened to,” Mr. Beck said. “Since it’s 0 degrees in Pittsburgh right now, I’m thinking it’s about time we started breaking some boundaries and started playing in the Southern Hemisphere.”

Greensky Bluegrass, four shows into a three-week tour, is joined tonight by Tumbleweed Wanderers.

Doors to the show at the Rex, 1602 E. Carson St., open at 7 p.m. It’s a show for those 17 and over, and admission is $20.

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com.


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