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Festival at Sandpoint: Greensky Bluegrass embraces maturity

Greensky Bluegrass will perform at The Festival at Sandpoint on Thursday night. (VisualLife / Jamie VanBuhler)
Greensky Bluegrass will perform at The Festival at Sandpoint on Thursday night. (VisualLife / Jamie VanBuhler)
By Alan Sculley For The Spokesman-Review

Maturity is a term some musicians prefer not to see associated with themselves or their bands. After all, in music youthful rebellion is what’s usually considered hip. But with the release of the sixth Greensky Bluegrass studio album, “Shouted, Written Down & Quoted,” mandolin player/singer Paul Hoffman is embracing the “M word” as a sign of the continued musical development of his group.

“It’s sort of the nature of our ensemble that we play a lot – and overplay even,” Hoffman said in a recent phone interview. “In bluegrass bands, like everybody is playing and playing so many damn notes. And at some point, I think with all music and all musicians, you get a little bit older and you realize, OK, I can play a lot of notes. But how do I play less? It’s the nature of all things, with flavor, words, color, music, the restraint is a more mature art form in learning how to use it.

“So that for me on this record I thought was really cool,” he said. “There are a lot of delicate moments. I think maybe it translates to, it’s not like in your face rocking the whole time. There are these like tender, beautiful moments, I think we actually created beautiful moments. I don’t know that we’ve done that in the past. Like there are some parts on there that are really pretty … Those are all of my favorite moments on the record because they’re just so different from what we do all the time.”

Greensky Bluegrass fans, though, don’t have to worry that the group has lost its edge on “Shouted, Written Down & Quoted.” The group is known for its progressive approach to bluegrass and for bringing rock and roll energy to its music, and that isn’t lost on the latest album.

Songs like “Run Or Die,” “Fixin’ To Ruin,” “Living Over” and “Take Cover” have plenty of energy in their brisk tempos and the quick-finger picking that the band members bring to their parts and solos.

But Hoffman is right about the moments of restraint and beauty that are peppered throughout “Shouted, Written Down & Quoted.”

The group doesn’t worry about breaking any land speed records on mid-tempo songs like “Miss September” and “Past My Prime,” choosing instead to make the notes count and focusing on the vocal melodies that carry the songs. And ballads like “Room Without a Roof,” “While Waiting” and “More Of Me” are all about putting melody and mood first, with instrumental virtuosity taking a back seat.

It makes sense that the five members of Greensky Bluegrass are showing more maturity in their music and playing, considering that they now qualify as seasoned artists and performers.

The group’s beginnings go back 18 years, to 2000 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when Hoffman, guitarist/singer Dave Bruzza and banjo player/singer Michael Arlen Bont formed the core of the original Greensky Bluegrass.

The group went through a couple of lineup changes shortly after releasing its debut album, “Less than Supper,” in May 2004, eventually settling into the current lineup that also includes Michael Devol on upright bass and vocals and Anders Beck on steel guitar.

A pivotal year for the band was 2006, when it released is second album, “Tuesday Letter,” and won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition. This earned Greensky Bluegrass a main stage slot at the 2007 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, a performance that elevated the group’s profile and put the group’s career on a decidedly upward arc.

Since then, Greensky Bluegrass has released 2008’s “Five Interstates,” 2011’s “Handguns” and 2014’s “If Sorrows Swim,” and seen its audience grow to the point where Greensky Bluegrass now routinely plays major theaters and main stages of major festivals.

The group’s shows have grown bigger on a visual level along the way.

“We keep getting more and more lights and more and more production stuff for the stage, so the stage look is a little big and a lot of the rooms have gotten bigger,” Hoffman said.

The visual emphasis is meant to serve a larger goal – to help make a Greensky Bluegrass concert an event that fosters a sense of community within the audience. It’s an ethic Hoffman said grew out of seeing his share of rock concerts, with Phish being a particularly big influence.

“That’s a big influence for us, just the presentation of the music and the concept of the show being an event and catering to people who see a whole run of shows,” Hoffman said. “That kind of community-based music is something that was important to all of us growing up. Musically it’s hard to say that Phish was a big influence other than just going for it. But I think that relationship with the fans and sort of the responsibility of the music as a bigger thing I learned from them very much.”

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