Last night’s 20th-anniversary Greensky Bluegrass celebration at the Blue Ridge Falls Drive-In was a true treat for fans new and old. It also served as a testament to their staying power as musicians and brothers-in-arms. It was almost heartbreaking to see them have to leave the stage when they had finished—even if it was to the jubilant cheers of their faithful followers. The crisp night air was filled with nostalgia, tributes, tricks and so very many treats. Oh, and stunning displays of musicianship from the band’s entire catalog and beyond both for in-person attendees and streamer’s tuning in via HYFI‘s stunning livestream feed.
A Star Wars-themed intro video narrated by Ben Penigar recounted some of the band’s history and showed the band being “Teleported” in from the future just in time to take the stage. The cheers that greeted them came from fans anticipating a monstrous show and they weren’t to be disappointed. After going so long without experiencing the circuit of energy that flows between a roaring live band and a cohort of the die-hard fans, Greensky Bluegrass has made sure to make this drive-in weekend count.
Greensky opened the show with a humble nod to their traditional roots by gathering around a single mic for a trio of tunes. Guitarist Dave Bruzza showed off his OG bluegrass pedigree from the first notes of the segment’s opening “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Shady Grove” follow-up. Bruzza’s voice has the perfect mix of gruff tone and twang to do true justice to these traditional favorites.
Mandolin maven Paul Hoffman took the lead for “Out And Under,” one of the band’s oldest tunes and still a toe-tapper. Never let it be said that the band doesn’t truly honor the “Bluegrass” portion of their name and heritage—even if they don’t get all dressed up fancy-like in the traditional suits and ties. Greensky even held back on elaborate costumes, relying on long-time director Andrew Lincoln to keep things mystical and spooky.
The voice-over narrator from the intro made a surprise return as the band warmed up with a sparse “Out And Under” segued into the first electrified tune of the night, a rip-roaring cover of Prince‘s “When Doves Cry.” The explorative take on “Tuesday Letter” that came next gave the audience their first taste of the mind-melting mayhem to come. A “Train Junkie” sandwich coalesced around a particularly poignant take on David Bowie‘s “Space Oddity,” with some downright lovely steel slide fills from Anders Beck.
It’s a good thing that Greensky chose to end the first set with “All Four” because after this transcendent version of the beloved tune, the crowd surely needed a few minutes to collect themselves. “All Four” is a perfect encapsulation of the band’s sound, and their decades of mastering their craft were on full display from the first strains through the final, fading echo. Hoffman emoted like a lost soul, Bruzza picked like a man possessed, Anders peeled and squealed all while Mike Devol acted as the living heartbeat at the center of it all.
The set break was filled with birthday well-wishes from fans and music luminaries like…(Inhales deeply)… Del & Ronnie McCoury, Sam Bush, Vince Herman & Andy Thorn from Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, their friends from Bells Brewery, Holly Bowling, Jennifer Hartswick, the OTHER Paul Hoffman (who serves as the lighting director for Widespread Panic), Jason Haan of String Cheese Incident, Billy Strings and company (who were clearly having no fun at all), Anders’ parents, Natalie Cressman, Dave Johnston, Ben Kaufmann, Adam Aijala, Allie Kral and Nick Piccininni from Yonder Mountain String Band, Eric Krasno of Soulive, Lebo from ALO, Andy Hall from The Infamous Stringdusters, Rob Derhak, Al Schnier, Chuck Garvey, Vinnie Amico & Jim Loughlin of moe., Dave Schools of Widespread Panic, Matt Butler of the Everyone Orchestra, Annabel from Jam Cruise and Cloud 9, Rayland Baxter, Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers, Joel Cummins from Umphrey’s McGee (who even took a self-aware shot at his band’s status as ‘verybody’s favorite cover band,’), the entire Travelin’ McCourys, countless family members, and more. Phew!
Returning to the stage, the band informed the audience that the video tributes that had run during the break had been a surprise to them, obviously a little shaken with emotion from the sheer volume of loving messages. Brushing that away, the band quickly got back into character and set out to give the crowd the most ominous “Bring Out Your Dead” possible. The “In Control” that followed is a perfect example of how far and wide a musical journey Greensky can take a listener on within in a single set. As if to prove that point, Greensky chose the Bruzza-led “Kerosene” to go on a fiery sonic journey to the far reaches of space—with a perfectly-timed detour through a razor-sharp cover of Black Sabbath‘s “War Pigs”.
The covers were flying freely as Mike Devol took the lyrical duties for a change on the Tears For Fears classic, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”. Devol stuck the landing and showed that even twenty years in, there are still so many facets of Greensky Bluegrass primed for exploration.
Using the upbeat “All For The Money” as a swing-for-the-fences, feel-good set-closer was a wonderful choice. The chemistry and exuberance of the band is palpable, and that feeling infused the entire closing stanza with a much needed lift after such a long year. While the band has certainly found success financially, it’s always been clear to any observer that Greensky is in it for the sheer joy of making music for the people and the feedback loop of love that ensues. That loop was as strong as ever Halloween night… even if it was slightly more distant than usual.
Paul Hoffman introduced the encore with a message from the future. He called it a message of hope. Then, Greensky dropped a special treat in our collective plastic pumpkins of goodies: a trio of new tunes. If you’re looking for what twenty years together gives a band, look no further than having the confidence to close out such a significant show with a triple serving of unproven material.
“Rolling On” had the straight-ahead bluegrass feel of some of their finest new standards while the droning “Stress Dreams”, with it’s doubling of Hoffman’s and Devol’s vocals, had an almost Beatles-esque feel. Michael Bont‘s sweet, intricate banjo notes served as a perfect counterpoint to Beck’s sing-song slide work, which slowly dissolved into a treacherous soundscape. After a slightly-early “Happy Birthday” to Anders, we got “Grow Together”, an achingly sweet song about love and aging that comes from the place of wisdom and perspective this band has cultivated over the course of two decades.
If songs like these are what Greensky Bluegrass has in store for us in the future, then it looks like whatever hardships we have left to face on the way are going to be worth it. Hoffman cheekily said that this wasn’t the band’s favorite year, and I’m sure that sentiment is universal, but hope springs eternal and that’s what these new songs represent. Congratulations to Greensky Bluegrass from a grateful world of music fans, family and friends on their achievement and cheers to many more years to come!
Setlist: Greensky Bluegrass | Blue Ridge Falls Drive-In | Brevard, NC | 10/31/20
Set One: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot*, Shady Grove, Out and Under, When Doves Cry, Tuesday Letter, Train Junkie > Space Oddity > Train Junkie, All Four
Set Two: Before Bring Out Your Dead >Bring Out Your Dead, In Control, Kerosene > War Pigs > Kerosene, Hold On > Everybody Wants to Rule the World > It’s Not Mine Anymore, All For Money
Encore: Rolling On, Stress Dreams, Grow Together
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What a pleasure it was to finally get to play live music to a crowd again. Thanks to all who came out to support and streamed the shows the last few nights. It’s been an honor to get to create and share our music with you for the past 20 years and we look forward to what the FUTURE holds! Also a huge shout out to our crew for all of their hard work this weekend, we couldn’t do what we do with out those guys. We hope to see you all again soon!