Greensky Bluegrass with Sam Bush
Friday, March 15, 2013
Better than: Knocking around a hacky sack in Golden Gate Park.
Greensky Bluegrass is one of the nation's leading newgrass bands. What's that mean? Essentially, they bring world-class musicianship to old-school hippie-rock jams. Their instruments include mandolin, dobro, and flat-picking acoustic guitar front and center, with banjo and upright bass mostly providing a solid rhythmic base from which solos, solos, and more solos spin out into the smoke-filled night. Like the Dead before them, Greensky are well-known for epic live shows. At West Virginia's All Good Festival they once played from 4:30 a.m. until the sun shone bright in the morning sky. These guys have got stamina -- and chops -- and they brought both to two massive sets at the Fillmore on Friday.
From the first plucky notes, it was clear that the hirsute thirtysomethings in Greensky are musicians' musicians. Which is no doubt why Grammy-winning "King of Newgrass" multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush sat in with the band all night, performing on mandolin and fiddle and leading many of the tunes on vocals as well. Bush is a beast, a self-proclaimed 17-year-old in a 57-year-old's body. Fans say he's responsible for bringing bluegrass out of the backwoods and into the contemporary concert hall. On Friday, his fleet-fingered fretboard mastery, slinky phrasing, and super-tight grooves seemed to draw more on jazz, blues, and arena rock riffage than traditional bluegrass -- an aesthetic that more than matched Greensky's party plan and delighted the nearly sold-out house.
The best parts of the gig were the duets Bush did with mandolinist Paul Hoffman and dobro slinger Anders Beck. There was a playful sensuality, an intimacy in the way the players communicated with each other on stage, as if kicking it in the bedroom after really good sex. The Greensky brothers gazed adoringly at Bush, grinning wide, relishing this gift of music they were making together. After an inspired dueling-mandolin version of Little Feat's "Sailin' Shoes" combined with the Robert Johnson classic, "Crossroads," Hoffman confessed into the microphone: "I couldn't sleep last night thinking about that." There was a whole lotta love in the room.
So it didn't matter that most of the songs seemed like mere vehicles for the solos, or that there were a lot of conspicuous crowd-pleasing covers (including Marley's "Could You Be Loved" and Dylan's "Girl from the North Country"), or that most of the melodies didn't stand out (the country gospel of "Same Ol' River" being a welcome exception). Greensky and Sam Bush delivered heartfelt jams that felt good, plain and simple.
Smoke vs. Brews: Despite the thick clouds of skunk, this was a beer-swilling, beer-spilling crowd -- the dance floor slippery (and sticky) long before the end of the first set.
Why hippies shouldn't drink: 'Cause we heard people say: "It's not a party 'til you come on a stranger." "Check out the chicken-head white girls dancing." "That guy just felt me up!"