Greensky Bluegrass

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Greensky Bluegrass gets set for their first three-night run at Red Rocks

Red Rocks Amphitheatre | Sept. 13 – 15

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By Timothy Dwenger
Photo by Dylan Langille On the DL Photo

There is a constant duality in music. The push and pull between instrumentation and lyrics, when done well, creates a unique interplay that drives the songs to another level – one that neither the instrumentation, nor the lyrics, could have achieved on their own. Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass, a seasoned songwriter and improviser, has studied that relationship for most of his adult life and has made the choice to write from a darker perspective despite the euphoric atmosphere his band tends to conjure up on stage.

“Fear, responsibility, regret — I think they are emotions that people struggle with understanding,” Hoffman said during a recent interview with The Marquee. “When people feel good they aren’t really thinking about it. You just feel good, you go with it. All the other feelings that are harder to deal with and understand get a lot more attention in people’s hearts and minds. So, I think [that]one, I’m not any different than them, and two, I think it’s maybe what people want to listen to. I’ve always thought that there is something courageous in finding the hard thing to say and then delivering it night after night.”

Hoffman penned eight of the twelve tracks on Greensky’s most recent album All For Money, and on several of those tracks he is exploring the darker side of relationships with lines like “Clearly you don’t even want me, So just be real and let me go” from “What You Need” and “Empty and missed, un-loved and un-kissed, too broken from this and unable to dismiss” from one of the album’s standout tracks, “Courage for The Road.” While he understands the bleak picture that he’s painting with these lyrics, he also revels, a little, in the tension that they create when the band is playing live. “When we are playing a concert and everyone is having a shitload of fun and all of a sudden I deliver a lyric like ‘We all bury our mother’s before we would like’ I’m like ‘Ooof, that’s not fun to sing when everyone is having a good time,’ but I think people kinda need it, myself included,” he admitted. “They seek it from art. It’s a safe place to simultaneously have a good time and let your cares go, and also confront all of it in that safe place. It’s beautiful,” he said

On the other side of that duality is the powerful and exploratory improvisation that the group is known for. While the live arena is typically the canvas for their legendary jams, on All For Money they let loose in the studio more than once and captured lightning in a bottle with the nine-minute version of “Courage For The Road” that made the final cut. “The record was made primarily in two sessions and that jam happened at the end of the first session,” explained Hoffman. “We are to a point in our playing where we aren’t saying ‘Oh I wish I would have played that better,’ it’s more like ‘Oh I wish I would played that differently.’ So sometimes the songs reshape after we play them live. We go back and change stuff. So, we left that first session, with that jam, thinking that we might go back and change some stuff but, the more we listened to it, the more it was like ‘How do you go in and change that?’ What you hear on the album is pretty much what we played live in the studio that day.”

While the decision was made to leave that jam intact on the final pressing, Hoffman admits that though the band tracks everything live in the studio, he really enjoys getting to go back in and overdub vocals. “My favorite thing to do in life is to overdub vocals as a lead singer. It’s the best! I can really focus on my breathing and delivery of the lyrics. It’s kind of when I finish the song,” he revealed. “Often in that stage, I change lyrics because I start to realize something would make better sense a different way or if there were one more syllable or one less syllable it would be more fun to sing. There is a raw energy of playing music and singing at the same time where there is less attention put on those nuances and while that sometimes leads to something magical, being able to hyper-focus on those things is a blast for me.”

For many of the band’s fans, it’s those magical moments that they chase from show to show, year after year. While this isn’t lost on Hoffman, conjuring those moments isn’t easy and the band puts significant thought into how to bring things right up to the edge but not fall over. “There is a real philosophical thing that goes into playing improvised music. We are trying to be creative and fresh and play something different and unique every night but if we are too different and unique then maybe we aren’t doing what people came for — what they like — ’cause we are just doing a bunch of stuff that people don’t like in the interest of being different,” he said. “Having a gigantic catalog of music helps a lot. It keeps it real fresh since we don’t play everything all the time. There’s a handful of our standard jam vehicles that are our big songs that we play once a week or so but then there is a ton of stuff that we rarely play and it can be fun when new moments happen.”

Hoffman went on to elaborate on how the improvisational energy and dynamics can morph as a tour goes on and in doing so he revealed another duality about his musical experience in Greensky. “In the beginning, everyone has a ton of new ideas and jams go to all these new places and all these unique things happen but maybe it’s not totally synched up because we don’t all know what the other person is going to do and can’t predict their path. So, by the end of the tour, when we are tight and can follow each other and our ears are real good, we have a cohesive core of improv but then we sort of become predictable because we are following what we know the other person is going to do because they may have alluded to it in previous shows or something. There is a real beautiful thing about both sides of it that I love. I love in the beginning when everyone has new ideas and it’s a little hectic and then I love in the end when it’s tight as hell and not flashy and we just groove hard.”

When the band hits Red Rocks this month they will be five shows deep into their fall tour and they have invited three uniquely talented openers to join them on the hallowed ground. Friday will feature an opening set from The Lil’ Smokies, on Saturday Rayland Baxter will start things off and finally, on Sunday, Billy Strings will get his first shot at The Rocks and Hoffman couldn’t be more pleased. “Those guys all deserve those slots. They are friends of ours and stuff, but I always tell them when they thank us that it’s not charity — we aren’t giving them anything. We are honored to have them play with us,” he said. “The Smokies are one of my favorite bands. Rayland’s vibe is so cool, and Billy is a fuckin’ hoss. I’m afraid of how talented he is.”

That statement is even larger considering it comes from a band that has gracefully stepped into a role in the scene that they carved out for themselves with nearly 20 years of hard work in the studio and on the stage. With this year’s run, Greensky reaches a major milestone as they join a relatively small club of bands (including Phish, Widespread Panic, and The Avett Brothers) that get to play a three-night stand at the legendary venue and Hoffman seems genuinely humbled. “We think it’s pretty insane man. Anders often says ‘Who the fuck do we think we are?’” he laughed. “It’s small company and that’s not lost on me. I know there are very few bands that play three nights at Red Rocks. It’s gonna blow up and it’s gonna be a fuckin’ blast.”

Red Rocks Amphitheatre | Sept. 13 – 15

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