There’s a whole generation of kids, born in the ‘70s and ‘80s, who fell in love with the Grateful Dead just as that band was entering its final years. When some of those kids discovered Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass album, “Old & in the Way,” they realized they could mimic his improvising on portable, wooden instruments without lugging around amplifiers and extension cords. And now, it seems, there’s a jam-grass band in every neighborhood. Nonetheless, Greensky Bluegrass stands out in that crowded scene.
In this middle show from the quintet’s 2019 three-night stand at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, the group doesn’t always stick to a bluegrass sound, but it does stick to bluegrass instruments. No drums, keyboards or solid-body guitars for this band. Even when it ventures into rock ‘n’ roll, country blues, African music or folk-rock, the all-acoustic instrumentation lends a continuity from song to song.
More crucial is the substance of the songwriting. In a genre where happy-go-lucky party invitations and pastoral escapism are the norm, things don’t always work out for the best in Greensky Bluegrass songs. More often than not, there’s a conflict between the singer’s hope for better times and his dread of the situation deteriorating even further. That tension seeps out of the lyrics and into the playing, which gives the music its drama.
It’s never clear who’s going to win the contest, ‘our worries’ or ‘something to believe in,’ but it’s the wrestling match between the two that Hoffman and his bandmates seem most interested in.
When Paul Hoffman, the band’s red-bearded mandolinist, sings “Against the Days,” at this Sept. 14 show, he describes life as “a race against time, where you bargain with the darkness in the back of your mind.” The “race” is reinforced by the bouncy, three-finger rolls of banjoist Michael Arlen Bont, while the “darkness” is suggested by Anders Beck’s moaning dobro slides. It’s never clear who’s going to win the contest, “our worries” or “something to believe in,” but it’s the wrestling match between the two that Hoffman and his bandmates seem most interested in.
Acoustic guitarist Dave Bruzza takes lead vocals on “Murder of Crows” from the group’s then-eight-month-old studio album, “All for Money.” Though it’s taken at a brisk bluegrass clip, the song is the lament of an abandoned lover, who feels as if his heart has been nailed to a fence post like a dead crow. When Bruzza is joined by Hoffman and bassist Mike Devol, the three-part harmonies are indeed high and lonesome in bluegrass tradition.
The group leans in a rock ‘n’ roll direction on its 2016 number, “Past My Prime,” a song so popular that the dancers in the seats between the towering slabs of desert red rock are singing along to the lyrics. Beck adds effects to his dobro to make it sound like a roaring, blues-rock guitar, while the chopping chords from the mandolin and guitar imply the absent drum kit. But underneath the rumbling momentum, Hoffman is still troubled, worried that he has become a “useless mess, just a helpless man,” and his dread gives the buoyant picking a much-needed undertow.
At one point, Greensky Bluegrass is joined by the evening’s opening act, Rayland Baxter, who sings his own composition, “Yellow Eyes,” and adds a Telecaster solo to the string-band picking. A terrific light show includes an innovation this writer has never seen before. Instead of hanging overhead, five mirror balls are mounted on the stage floor, causing their light beams to strike the musicians sideways rather than downward.
Greensky Bluegrass has long been known for adapting famous, even unlikely songs to the jam-grass format. On this night, the songs are U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and Paul Simon’s “Gumboots.” In their original versions, both are built on guitar figures that break up the chords into circulating arpeggios. Bluegrass also is built on such figures, and it’s a kick to hear Bont translate riffs from Ireland’s The Edge and South Africa’s Daniel Xilakazi to the five-string banjo. Here’s territory that deserves more exploration.