Our recent conversation with Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass began with the usual pleasantries and, of course, the necessary 2020 caveat: We’re doing pretty okay… Well, as okay as you can be in this strangest of years. “All of us who live for live music are havin’ a tough go at it, man,” he joked, laughing in a such a way that you could tell he was equally amused and troubled by the notion.
It’s the same story with any musician you talk to these days, some five months after virtually all live music began to evaporate in March: Keeping it together, pivoting to new platforms, trying to make it work with not just your day job, but your entire industry on indefinite shutdown.
While Greensky, like every band, had their big 2020 plans foiled by the spread of the coronavirus, the genre-blending bluegrass quintet has devised a new way to satiate the appetites of their cult-like fanbase with fresh live content. On Friday, August 7th, the band will air the first of eight Leap Year Sessions, a series of full-band, full-production shows captured at an empty The Pageant in St. Louis last month. The eight shows, recorded in 4K by 201 Productions (most widely known for their extensive work capturing LivePhish), will be delivered to pay-per-view audiences by HYFI every Friday night throughout the months of August and September.
Greensky Bluegrass – “Leap Year” – Leap Year Sessions Part 1 – Aired 8/7/20
“It’s exciting to get to have something to give to people, beyond anything else,” Beck noted with sincerity.
While it’s not the busy season of headlining festival plays and amphitheater dates the band was originally scheduled to undertake, it’s something—something a little different than fans have seen so far, at that—and in this Leap Year summer, that’s enough to feel good about. How can one more day make a year so long?
“There’s no roadmap,” Beck explained, “And that’s not just in a band or in the music industry, that’s across this entire world right now, particularly our country. We’re all just trying to figure it out, and I found that to be relatively… strangely… comforting?”
“It may sound weird,” he mused with a laugh, “But the idea that a band the size of Phish has no idea what to do just as much as we have no idea what to do just as much as a small band getting started has no idea what to do—it’s leveled the playing field in some really weird way, you know what I’m saying?”
With concerts canceled across the board, Greensky Bluegrass, like many bands, began to stream old shows for free online. “It was really fun from our perspective,” Beck explained, “Because we actually got to kind of watch the shows on Facebook with the fans.”
Of course, as is the theme of quarantine, emotions are always mixed. “[There’s] footage of me when I first watched us playing a show on TV and I was just playing along,” he recalled, “It was the saddest thing I’ve ever freaking done. Like, ‘Wow, I don’t get to do this anymore? This sucks!'”
The band did wind up performing “together” remotely for virtual music festival Quarantine Comes Alive in May. In split-screen style, the quintet played three original songs for the livestream marathon including fan-favorite “Burn Them”, which featured a hidden surprise for those who knew not to blink.
As Anders explained, pausing periodically in spurts of laughter, “We were just sort of joking about that. It’s got that tambourine hit in that song, ‘Burn Them’. When we do it live, it’s either our monitor engineer Keith or Guido, our tour manager, or someone does it live. So we’re like, well, who’s going to do it on this thing for Quarantine Comes Alive? And we started joking about different drummers.”
“I honestly meant to text [Widespread Panic drummer] Duane Trucks to say I had a weird favor to ask. Instead, I texted [lauded guitarist/Duane’s brother] Derek Trucks. He immediately called me and I was like, ‘Oh god, this is too hilarious not to be [done], so now I have to force him to do this.'”
Greensky Bluegrass – “Burn Them”, “A Letter to Seymour”, “Fixin’ To Ruin” – Quarantine Comes Alive
Despite staying busy with online content, what weighed most heavily on Beck was the physical distance. He reflected on the notion that this was the first time in twenty years that the five band members had been apart for a four-month stretch.
“The first month or two of the original quarantine was the weirdest time of anyone’s life in our generation, maybe anyone’s generation,” Beck continued with measured levity. “From the start, it’d just be like, ‘Man, we might not have gigs for a month,’ and then… The depression that set in for a lot for a lot of us, music-wise, to see everything you’ve built and planned for… We plan six months to a year out for live stuff, and to just daily have these phone calls where everything’s getting canceled was intense, to say the least.”
“I was thinking about the range of emotions that I went through… at first, I really missed playing shows. And then, eventually, I sort of really missed my friends, my buddies that I play music with. And then, in the end, I was like, god I just miss it all so much together.”
“That’s honestly where the Leap Year Sessions idea came from,” he explained, “Was to figure out a way to get together and make music. I mean, those are my four best friends, so even if we didn’t play a note of music, it would have been a joyous occasion just to be in the same room.”
From that concept came a plan—a way to get together in real life, play real live shows, and give fans some semblance of an actual “summer tour” to look forward to: Safely, secretly gather the band, the crew, and a top-quality video team at an empty theater to record a series of full live shows to be doled out throughout the summer. They quietly converged on The Pageant in St. Louis and got to work.
“We got together and spent about a week playing these shows, writing setlists like we’re back on tour. We did two shows each day, and we also ended up rehearsing those shows each day too, so it was busy as hell, but busy playing the songs we love. So that’s a good version of busy.”
“Musically, it was really interesting for us because we’re going through pretty much all of our material again as if we’re on tour. We won’t repeat a song in four or five shows [on tour], and most of that is original material, so trying to dig into all those songs again was a real adventure. It was a trip … sort of reassessing some of the songs—not exactly relearning the songs, but kind of? It was the juxtaposition of having it be so fun, but also having it be a lot of work.”
“We started playing the shows, trying to build upon each one of them,” Anders explained. “[Mandolinist/vocalist] Paul [Hoffman] pointed out that even though this happened over the course of a week or whatever, it felt like a tour, where at the start, maybe you’ve got the jitters because you haven’t been on the road for a little bit or whatever. And then by the end of it, jams are going certain different ways because people are more comfortable or people are tired or whatever. It had the arc of a real tour over the course of a week. It was really interesting. I think that fans are going to dig that. I haven’t watched the shows yet either, but maybe, hopefully, you’ll get to see the arc of a band that hasn’t played together in four months.”
While all this took place, the Greensky fanbase was blissfully unaware of what was going on in St. Louis. That story arc, however, took an exciting turn at the week’s midpoint. With four shows in the can and four more left to record, Greensky Bluegrass casually found themselves on a stage, on a Wednesday—and you know how Greensky Bluegrass feels about Wednesdays.
Rather than their usual archival Wednesday stream, the band surprised fans by live-streaming a free show from their Pageant “bubble.” It was the first publicly “attended” Greensky show since the shutdown began. Two days and four taped shows later, Greensky Bluegrass announced the Leap Year Sessions, and fans began to connect the dots.
During the requisite rendition of “Casual Wednesday” performed on the live stream that Hump Night, Anders strolled around the empty venue, held court from the balcony, drove a golf cart across the barren dance floor, and even grabbed one of the 4K cameras for a few shaky shots of his bandmates. He wrapped up his antics, however, by dubbing it the “worst Wednesday of my life.”
Why? “I’m in a venue with my friends and nobody else here!” he exclaimed. “We’re in an empty venue, and that sucks! I miss you! I miss you, I really do! Because it’s Casual Wednesday, I need you!”
“It almost felt weird to be happy about it,” he later said about the comment. “Playing in an empty room is weird.”
Greensky Bluegrass – “Casual Wednesday” – 7/16/20
When asked about whether he actually did have fun with it—about whether there was actually any upside to playing an empty venue—Anders didn’t flinch: “Comparing it to playing a show with 1,000 people there? … No.”
He continued, chuckling, “I mean, I still had as much fun as I possibly humanly could, but that’s kind of the way I live. But there are no aspects that I would rather have, nothing that I could take away that I would rather do without a crowd. I bet there’re musicians out there that would think it was easier to focus or something, and I respect that, but for me, and I think our band in general, the energy is a reciprocal thing, from us to the crowd and back, and back and forth and back and forth.”
“So, in doing the live one on Wednesday, knowing that people were out there really helped us realize how to harness that energy a little bit. In between songs, it was just weird. I think what was fun for us was kind of embracing that weirdness, if nothing else, and also being able to laugh at ourselves when a song ends and there’s no one there cheering and we just kind of look at each other like, ‘This is ridiculous.'”
[Photo: ontheDL photography, 7/16/20]
The familiar themes of 2020 continued to rear their heads as the conversation went on. No roadmaps. Embracing the weirdness. Making lemonade. “That’s what this year is about,” Beck noted. “Aside from the music industry, the whole world is… [laughs] it sucks, obviously. But you got to try and look for the silver linings and figure out what they are. The lemonade made from the lemons of this year is not going to be the best, but you got to try and take the positives out of something negative. Find something positive.”
“So for us, my lemonade, I think we really did the best that we could in order to find a way to make really cool shows. I think people are going to be really impressed with beyond just the Greensky production. The audio, the video quality, and content of these shows is really, really good. I’m really excited about that, personally. Bringing Greensky shows into people’s living rooms in 4K is going to be sweet.”
“We’re all going through this different ways. Beyond that, it’s different ways at different times. I myself have certainly had really bad days. And I’ve also had days where I’m on the other side of it on some level being like, ‘Okay, this isn’t so bad.’ … Remember that if you’re having a bad day, someone else is out there having a good day. And remember if you’re having a good day to check on the people that might be having a bad day. As musicians and entertainers, I think that a lot of the idea [behind] these sessions was, and will be, just to give you a little taste of a reminder. If these shows on a Friday help someone get through their day—one person—then that’s awesome. Hopefully, the shows are so good that they can get you through the whole damn week til the next one.”
The Greensky Bluegrass Leap Year Sessions will stream via HYFI each Friday in August and September. For more information or to order your single-show webcasts or eight-show bundle, head here.