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Music » Sound Stories & Interviews

Instrument of Rock

Greensky Bluegrass turns a mandolin into something more


With Greensky Bluegrass, it isn't just the name that's the inverse of what's expected, it's the musical roots, too. Case in point: Bluegrass isn't what Paul Hoffman, one of the two main songwriters in the bluegrass group, generally dials up when he wants to listen to music for fun.

"I don't listen to very much bluegrass. It does sort of happen to be [just] what I play," Hoffman says in a recent phone interview. "I listen to some bluegrass and some other acoustic ensembles because I'm interested in them because I play it. But my personal listening is usually more songwriter based."

His music library includes a variety of genres, from indie rock to acoustic singer-songwriter. The common thread, Hoffman says, is the songwriting.

"If I find a writer I like, I'll be hooked, no matter what kind of music it is," he explains. "And I find a lot of inspiration listening to writers I like play different styles of music and hearing things that they do that wouldn't be so natural for us to do in a bluegrass band without drums."

The wider-ranging musical tastes make sense when one considers that Greensky Bluegrass isn't exactly a purebred, dyed-in-the-wool type of bluegrass group. That may have something to do with the fact that Hoffman came to bluegrass a bit later than many musicians in the genre. He had already spent several years playing guitar when, after seeing a David Grisman concert at age 18, he found himself drawn to the mandolin. Soon he began to discover he was more suited to that instrument and that he liked what bluegrass had to offer.

"When I was playing guitar and writing songs before I started playing the mandolin, it was definitely a real folk-oriented kind of thing. I wasn't able to musically express myself as fluidly as I can on the mandolin now," Hoffman says. "Then when I learned playing bluegrass with these guys [in Greensky Bluegrass], I enjoyed singing a lot, so the harmony singing intrigued me."

The fact that Hoffman (like his bandmates) has never limited himself to bluegrass is one reason that Greensky Bluegrass, which last fall released a new studio album, If Sorrows Swim, is known for pushing at the boundaries of the genre.

Yes, the group has the instrumental configuration common to the idiom, with mandolin (played by Hoffman), acoustic guitar (Dave Bruzza—the group's other main songwriter), banjo (Michael Arlen Bont), upright bass (Michael Devol), and steel guitar (Anders Beck, who also plays guitar). And bluegrass is certainly the predominant ingredient in the group's songs.

But Greensky Bluegrass also brings a good bit of rock in its song-centric approach, both in the energy and edgy nature of much of its material. And some songs are every bit as rock in their cadence, structure, and rhythm as they are bluegrass. A good example, from If Sorrows Swim, is "Wings For Wheel," which has a decidedly more measured rock tempo and chords that are easily more rock anthem than bluegrass. Other new songs, such as "Windshield," (which has a certain ambience to go with its rich vocal melody), "The Four" (a chunky tune that suggests the Counting Crows gone acoustic), and "Just Listening" (an especially tuneful charmer) also display a rock/pop influence to go with their bluegrass/acoustic sound. But the bluegrass influence is apparent even in those songs, and it's especially strong in tracks like "Burn Them," "A Letter to Seymour," and "Kerosene."

The group started crafting its sound after Hoffman, Bruzza, and Bont formed Greensky Bluegrass in 2000 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A big break came in 2006, when the group won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition. This earned Greensky Bluegrass a main stage slot at the 2007 festival.

The band has continued to gain momentum since, as Greensky Bluegrass, which now has five studio albums in its catalog, focused much of its touring efforts on playing rock clubs, rock festivals, and jam band events and festivals, while continuing to keep its foot in the bluegrass circuit.

The adventurous nature of Greensky Bluegrass is apparent, both on record and live. On If Sorrows Swim, the group gambled by choosing to develop some songs in the studio instead of first playing and refining them on tour before recording.

"It's kind of scary to record tunes that haven't been road tested," Hoffman says. "It's nice to sort of give the song a chance to grow up and take flight a little bit [live] before committing to what is going to be the arrangement that's going to be the studio version that people listen to. But it's also fun to do the other thing."

Playing new songs won't be the only way Greensky Bluegrass tests itself and its audience in concerts.

"We play a lot of material that people wouldn't expect from a bluegrass band per se. A lot of our subject matter is different and maybe more risqué than you might expect," Hoffman says. "We take some chances on the records as well, but in the live show, we have a lot more time to spread our wings and really explore and experiment."

Greensky Bluegrass

7 pm, Wednesday, Nov. 4

Domino Room, 51 NW Greenwood Ave.


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