Joy of jamming

Bluegrass gets a workout with “jamgrass” torch bearers

Greensky Bluegrass’ unbroken jam circle.

Greensky Bluegrass’ unbroken jam circle.

photo by j. vanbuhler

Greensky Bluegrass performs Tuesday, April 24, 7:30 p.m., at the Big Room.
Tickets: $20
Sierra Nevada Big Room
1075 E. 20th Street

Greensky Bluegrass will bring some of the quickest fingerpickers in the business to the Sierra Nevada Big Room on April 24 for an evening of bluegrass music that fuses the traditional Lester Flatt/Earl Scruggs era with the Nickel Creek/Yonder Mountain String Band progressive/newgrass era.

On record, the band’s songs and arrangements are marked by sublime melodies and skilled dexterity, which come through with seemingly effortless sophistication. Onstage, the band lets its freeform freak flag fly, stretching out its old-school bluegrass chops with adventurous crescendos of jam-band-era inventiveness.

“We all value the energy of being on the edge and going for it,” Paul Hoffman, the band’s chief songwriter, lead vocalist and mandolin player, said of the band’s live approach of jumping in with both feet. “We don’t play all perfect shows, and I don’t think any of us hold back for fear of making a mistake, but when you open the doors of improvisation everything is fair game and you really can’t mess up.”

The impending Big Room show follows almost three years to the day the band’s first Chico appearance, at Lost on Main. And though the 500 or so gigs that Greensky Bluegrass has conquered since then have brought plenty of additional original songs, as well as more proficiency, ingenuity, and non-verbal telepathy onstage, the band’s core message remains the same.

“Have fun,” offered Hoffman, who chatted by phone from the band’s home turf of Kalamazoo, Mich. “We’re a fun band; we want people to enjoy themselves. We usually have a pretty energetic crowd, dancing, screaming, partying—and we’re into that.”

Hoffman said that, as the band cut its teeth 10 years ago as a burgeoning trio with Mike Bont (banjo) and Dave Bruzza (guitar), it looked to the catalog and high, lonesome harmonies of The Seldom Scene, the legendary bluegrass band that in the 1970s helped shape the progressive style also defined by Sam Bush and Béla Fleck’s New Grass Revival.

“The Seldom Scene was a great template for us; they were a huge influence back during our early open mics,” Hoffman said. “And we were also playing the Grateful Dead/David Grisman side [of bluegrass], rather than Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs stuff.”

Today, the now five-piece delivers multiple layers of stringed goodness, adding upright bassist Mike Devol and dobro player Anders Beck to the banjo, mandolin and guitar trio.

Greensky Bluegrass returns to Chico in support of its fourth studio effort, Handguns, which debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Album chart last October. The disc contains 14 original ballads and up-tempo pieces, with a liberal sprinkling of jamming throughout. The title is “just an image metaphor for responsibility and power and whatever a handgun is,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman classified the album as “darker” than the band’s earlier offerings, evidenced by song titles such as “Bring Out Your Dead,” “I’d Probably Kill You,” and “Blood Sucking F(r)iends.” But every mention of conflict and discord is counterbalanced with optimism and inspiration. Standout tracks include “Don’t Lie,” a dobro-heavy, Sam Bush-reminiscent tale in which Hoffman laments, “I can’t travel on this way,” and the 11-minute “All Four,” which includes several minutes of soft plucking and jamming that’s as sweet as a walk in a field of spring wildflowers.

“I take our songs and songwriting seriously,” Hoffman said. “It’s rewarding that people across the board appreciate our songs. People that like jam bands come out to party and then the songs transcend that and people say, ‘That song, wow!’”

While the Big Room crowd can expect plenty of original Greensky tunes, the quintet also has a knack for throwing out some covers, which can be as varied as a bluegrass version of Pink Floyd’s “Time” or Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary.”