Launched in 2010 by a group of snowboarders who call themselves the Frends Crew, Vermont’s annual Frendly Gathering festival has grown into one of the New England’s premier musical events over the past eight years. What started with 12 bands and a few hundred fans has since blossomed into something much bigger while always staying to true to its roots. The music may be consistently great, but it’s the festival’s genuine continued commitment to friendship and mindfulness that will convince thousands of people to make the trek to Waitsfield, Vermont, when the event returns to Sugarbush Resort from June 28th to 30th.
Aside from the top-notch vibes, one constant that has remained since Frendly Gathering early days is the event’s connection with Twiddle. The perennial headliners, who have had a long and fruitful relationship with the festival’s organizers, will headline one night of the festival, just as they have in years past. But while Twiddle may be intimately familiar with the Frendly Gathering, the same cannot be said for everyone on the lineup. Plenty of acts will make their Frendly Gathering debut this June, including progressive string-band mavericks Greensky Bluegrass.
Live For Live Music caught up with Greensky’s maestro of the dobro, Anders Beck, to talk about the band’s Frendly Gathering debut, what’s in store for the inaugural edition of their own festival, marijuana legalization, when we expect to hear a new album, and much more.
Live For Live Music: You guys will be playing Frendly Gathering next month. What can we expect from Greensky’s return to Vermont?
Anders Beck: You know, it’s been a while. I think we played Stratton last year and that was the last time we were there, but we’re psyched to be at Frendly Gathering. Twiddle have become good friends, and better friends the more we bump into them. I see Mihali [Savoulidis of Twiddle] a fair amount. I didn’t get to go to their Red Rocks show because we had just gotten home, but I saw him the next night playing with Phil [Lesh] and friends. We’ve had some good hangs with some of those guys, so I’m looking forward to seeing them. There will probably be some musical collaboration there.
It looks like a cool festival, but I’ve never been there so it’s hard for me to really say. But it looks like its well-cultivated. The lineup is great, and I’d like to see Kamasi Washington, so I hope he’s playing while we’re there. Festivals are exciting, especially when it’s a place we’ve never been before. You just show up and rock. A lot of the clubs and venues we play most of the year are places we’ve already been to, so a new festival site is always exciting for us.
L4LM: Frendly Gathering has a long-standing connection with Twiddle and is somewhat synonymous with them, which is pretty interesting because you guys have your own festival coming up. Camp Greensky, in your home state of Michigan, will make its debut in a few weeks. Has adding festival organizers to the list of band duties been an eye-opening experience?
AB: [Laughs] Yes, saying Frendly Gathering was “well-cultivated” is a compliment. It looks like they did their job with the lineup and everything else. This is our first year throwing a festival, and we’ve joked that we did years of research. All we do every summer is research, because festivals are where we are. For me, creating our own festival has been exciting and scary and nerve-wracking, and it hasn’t even happened yet. But we’re super psyched about it. The amount of attention to detail required to make sure that it’s awesome is very large.
As a band, we’re trying to do our best to stay on top of everything. Obviously, there’s a bunch of people helping us produce this festival, but we don’t want to just hand it off and say, “Go take care of this.” We all want to be very involved. That’s kind of the idea, right? If we’re going to put our name on it, then the five of us want to be really involved in making it awesome. But since I’m talking about it in the future and not in the past, it’s hard to tell. The idea is that we’ll have our first festival be super awesome. It’s funny because now that we’re doing this, it gives going somewhere like Frendly Gathering a little more gravity. We recognize that putting on your own festival is no simple task to task to accomplish.
L4LM: I know you and some of the other members of the band are pretty big Phish fans, so it’s gotta be pretty cool having Mike Gordon on that Camp Greensky lineup. If I were running a jam-band betting service, what would be the Vegas odds on a Cactus sit in?
AB: Oh no, man. That’s hard to tell. He’s got bluegrass roots. The few times we’ve seen him at our shows, he’s been like, “Oh, you guys play traditional bluegrass” and wants to talk about banjo and stuff. Which is funny since we want to talk about the opposite because, while we have bluegrass instruments, we like to use them as a jumping off point for making our own sound.
But we would love to have Mike play with us. Banjo or bass. We just gotta find the right music. But a lot of the time at festivals, what happens is that people have planes to catch and things like that. You can ask someone to sit in tomorrow, but they might not be there tomorrow. Even if it’s the same day, people still have flights to catch that night. So the beauty is that, when it does work out, there’s usually a little bit of magic to it. So odds? I’ll go with 65%.
L4LM: Oh wow, I’ll have to call some bookies up.
AB: [Laughs] But maybe I’m just saying that so I can win some money. We’ll see.
L4LM: Speaking of returning to your home state of Michigan, it looks like marijuana legalization will be on the ballot there in November. Do you or anyone else in the band have any strong feelings on this issue?
AB: I’m certainly not against it. Living in Colorado and seeing what it’s done for Colorado, it just makes a lot of sense. Beyond the positive effects of someone smoking weed as opposed to doing hard drugs or drinking—beyond that positive there—is the financial impact that legalization has had on Colorado. It makes it seem like an absolute no-brainer for every other state in my mind. That’s not even political. We get so much tax revenue for the state that it’s literally affecting Colorado’s public schools in an incredibly positive way. That’s awesome.
L4LM: You guys released your last album, Shouted, Written Down & Quoted, back in 2016. Is there a follow up in the work as we speak?
AB: Yep. There sure is. We’ve been working on it, and we’re still working on it. It’s an absolute reality at this point, and it’s starting to come together. It’s real cool, but we’re hesitant to get excited about it because it takes a long time for these things to come to fruition. The whole process of making albums, and then getting them on vinyl, etc., it all takes a long time. So we’re hesitant to get excited about it, or at least I’m hesitant to get anyone else excited about it. [Laughs] But the bottom line is yes, we are currently at work on it.
L4LM: Is there anything you can tell us about it? Where are you recording? Will some live staples that have never made it to an album be on there?
AB: We’ve been doing it in Asheville, North Carolina, at Echo Mountain Studios, which is where we recorded the last album. If all goes according to plan—and this is just at this point because it isn’t done yet—it’s got nothing that anyone has ever heard before. Like I said, that’s just at this point, and it’s not done, so don’t get excited. [Laughs] And don’t tell anyone else to get excited.
L4LM: I’ve always thought one of the things that separates Greensky Bluegrass from much of the “jam band” world is the quality of the songwriting. I’ve never gotten the sense that you guys are throwing something together to fill space for the jam. The songs work as pieces of music independent of the jams. Can you share any details about the band’s songwriting process? Is there a go-to method?
AB: Yeah, I happen to agree with you. For what it’s worth, I agree that the songs are really good. And I can sort of say that because, even though I’m in the band, I don’t write the lyrics. I help with musical arrangements and things like that, so while it may sound like I’m tooting my own horn, I’m actually tooting Paul [Hoffman] and Dave [Bruzza’s] horns as the principal songwriters. Paul probably writes more of the material than Dave, but they both work real hard at it, and I’m still blown away by the stuff those guys come up with and have come up with. It’s really unique, advanced songwriting. I’ll be on stage and a lyric from a song we recorded like five years ago will still flatten me. That’s cool.
As far as the process goes, they’ll bring a song to the band that is more or less finished. The lyrical content is finished, and there’s a melody and some chords. It’s kind of like a singer-songwriter thing. Paul will have written it—on the guitar, not the mandolin—so it’s like a singer-songwriter thing. It’s like a guy and guitar doing this folk song. Then the five of us at a band will push the song around and tweak it and try to turn into something that’s significantly bigger than that. Creating jam interludes, creating alternate melodies, changing around parts—or not. The goal is to take this singer-songwriter song and turn it into a Greensky song. That’s always a really exciting process. It’s fun, but it can also be a lot of work because you’re trying to make it something that’s different from everything else that there is. So that’s the process, and we’ve been doing a lot of it recently.
Greensky Bluegrass – “Past My Prime”
[Video: Paste Magazine]
L4LM: You mentioned earlier that Mike Gordon wants to talk about banjo, and y’all don’t necessarily want to do that. I often tell people that Greensky is a rock ‘n’ roll band with bluegrass instrumentation because you guys have a bigger, more propulsive sound than people tend to expect from a string band. Is there a philosophy that you guys have for getting that powerful of a sound in the absence of a drummer?
Anders Beck: We’ve always just sort of heard it that way in our heads. Even when we were playing bluegrass around a single mic, it was always like, “Well, what if it rocked?” We spent a lot of time working really hard to get to the point where we sound as big as any other band at a festival. And there are no drums. There’s no electric guitar—well, sort of. But we spent a lot of time working on this, trying different things on our rigs, trying to get a dobro as loud as one of Umphrey’s McGee’s guitars. And there’s no simple answer for that, so we spent a lot of time getting it to where it’s at.
While we’ve all worked hard on this, our sound engineers have been a big, big part of it. We’ve found some people that got it, and we definitely had some sound engineers over the years that did not get it. But that ones that get it have really helped us achieve that, and they deserve a hell of a lot of credit. One was Jake Wargo, and then the next one who really got it was Greg Burns, who is currently still our engineer and production manager. Those guys, they understand that the idea is to thump it. Giant big bass sounds. A full band sound from five acoustic instruments is pretty hard to do and, you’re right, it’s certainly not what a lot of people expect. It’s good to give people what they don’t expect.
As far as playing it, you could liken it to the five of us trying to create, essentially, what a drum kit would do or a band with drums would do. The upright bass becomes the kick drum, the mandolin is the snare drum. To take the metaphor even further, I’d say the guitar is probably all of the tom-toms, and the banjo and dobro are the cymbals of some sort, which might be a stretch. If nothing else, we’re trying to create that sound by compartmentalizing what each instrument can do. We don’t even think of it as a band without drums anymore, even though it is, because it rocks equally as hard in my opinion. Or at least that’s the goal.
Frendly Gathering will return to Sugarbush Resort in Waitsfield, Vermont, from June 28th to 30th. The lineup includes Twiddle, Greensky Bluegrass, Nahko and Medicine For The People, Kamasi Washington, The Devil Makes Three, White Denim, Spafford, and many more. Tickets are available here.