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Bending the Bluegrass Rules

Rachel Stephens

Rachel Stephens

Whatzup Features Writer

Published September 20, 2018

According to Greensky Bluegrass banjoist Mike Bont, “When you pick to be a musician, you are picking to stay with the same job your entire life.”

Bont and his bandmates embrace this long-term commitment by switching up the formula of a typical bluegrass ensemble to keep their music and their career interesting.

Inspired by their individual music tastes, the five members of Greensky Bluegrass create an eclectic, moody sound that gets feet a’tappin’ and heads a’noddin’.

“You can call us an acoustic ensemble, or a drum-less rock band, or a rock n’ roll bluegrass band,” said mandolin player Paul Hoffman.

With influences of folk, jazz, and rock, Greensky Bluegrass are not afraid to break the rules and pioneer their own style. And their audience can fully expect them to continue developing this sound.

“I think that is one of the hardest things is to keep it original and not get static,” Bont said. “We are just very open to new ideas. We are pretty open to change things up because we play so many shows, and we are all of the similar mindset that playing the same shows is pretty boring, so let’s continue to learn new material.”

Formed in 2000 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the band had plenty of time to develop their unique sound and build quite an impressive library of original tunes.

Mandolin player Paul Hoffman describes their musical collection as, “Some aggressive, rocking moments; some bouncy, funky moments; an acoustic think piece or two. It’s a balance of moods and textures that we create as a band.”

From their humble beginning playing open mics across the Midwest, over the past 18 years Greensky Bluegrass have evolved into a nationally touring band and become a regular name on lineups of festivals like Bonnaroo and the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Even though they play roughly 175 gigs per year, they never play the same show twice.

Bont said much of the band’s live performance is improv, which allows for a one-of-a-kind concert experience each time they take the stage.

“Basically, anything can happen at a Greensky show because we never play the same song the same way twice,” Bont said. “You are not going to see the same set every night. That is kind of what draws people to not only one show, but multiple shows when we go on tours.”

Along with a fresh and unpredictable setlist, The Greensky Bluegrass show on October 2 at The Clyde Theatre promises a large-scale production with features like a psychedelic light show.

“The goal isn’t just to play important music,” said guitarist Dave Bruzza. “We want to cultivate an experience, where people can escape from their everyday lives for a minute and put their worries aside.”

According to Bont, this approach to live music connects with their audience so much so that fans travel from all over the country to experience the excitement and diversity in their performances.

Bonding over their appreciation for the band, these traveling fans become like one big family.

“It’s a family vibe,” Bont said. “All of our fans are friends with each other and know each other and keep in touch through social media. It continues to grow and people love to come and see our show and listen to our music and let loose.”

Not sure what to expect from such an electric ensemble? Bont said newcomers need to know two things: “We like to play loud and they should expect to have a good time.”

With such variety in their music, there is something for everyone at a Greensky Bluegrass show.

“If they’ve never seen us before, I think that they should expect to like our band after the show. Most people tend to like our band and become fans.”

Opening the show is another rock-inspired bluegrass group, the Lil Smokies. Hailing from Missoula, Montana, this five-piece ensemble compliments the rowdy raw sound of Greensky Bluegrass with their own edgy energy.

Doors open at 7 p.m. with the show starting at 8 p.m.

Whether you are a die-hard bluegrass fan or a casual listener, feel free to forget everything you know about the genre when you see these two rule-bending bands perform.

“Even if they are scared by the name bluegrass or not scared or whatever, people just always are so easily blown away,” Bont said. “Even if they are not expecting to be blown away or don’t want to be blown away, there are very few people that don’t like our music once they are turned on to it.”


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