That’s the word I’d use to describe Greensky Bluegrass at The Vic. Not because the shows were that good (okay… they were), but because Greensky Bluegrass has the undeniable momentum of not just a touring and recording band finding white-hot success on both fronts, but as an honest-to-goodness phenomenon. Their pair of sold out shows weren’t artificially hyped, a result of manufactured demand or chock-full of curiosity seekers. They were packed with those compelled to be there. There is something happening here that transcends the confines of the music industry and is entering the realm of myth-making.
It happens when fans no longer feel like they are simply witnessing something, and instead feel like they are a part of something. It’s a byproduct of a band playing so well and so confidently and — let’s face it — so often, that their music can continually be exposed to not only new fans, but also serve to draw the already converted further in. Each show unlocks another puzzle piece, each experience woven into a tapestry that defines who this band and its fanbase become collectively.
In a scene where every band wants to shed labels, Greensky has got the label right there in their name. But clearly, bluegrass doesn’t begin to explain it — and gives little clue as to where a band like this will attempt to go from here. Jamgrass — if that’s what you want to call the loose confederation of bands that mix acoustic guitars, banjos and mandolins with improvisational elements — has no shortage of bands who’ve attempted to climb the ladder. But for all the contenders, few have even reached the sold-out multi-night theater-in-Chicago phase.
Using this run as evidence, do we dare even call what they do jamgrass? It feels like so much more.
While many of their peers have used a drummer to inject adrenaline into their string-filled runs and get crowds dancing, Greensky falls back again and again on a charm offensive for the same purpose. There’s nothing coy about their likability — they are just plain likable. One of the most accessible bands on the scene, they are in some ways a mirror of their most die-hard fans — they talk like us, they look like us, they feel like us.
And that connection has become increasingly stronger via their songwriting and cover song choices.
The newer tunes are getting more and more thoughtful, speaking directly to a mature crowd. Saturday’s “Living Over” and “Hold On” are great examples here — they tap into our own inner monologues, but don’t skimp on riffs that contain hooks. “Past My Prime” is actually a beautifully crafted pop song, as appealing as the best of what’s on commercial radio.
Their covers appeal to a mature sense of classicism and quality. “When Doves Cry” pops off and hits you in the gut. The way the band dropped into Pink Floyd’s “Time” from “Clinch Mountain Backstop” as if to say, “remember this incredible song? We love it too”. The face that the “Leap Year” chorus didn’t feel out of place between it and “Breathe” is a statement — our music can hit you in the exact same place as the greats.
And yes, there is also the jamming. Because we adults do like to have a good time on occasion.
Their music has a slick way of transitioning from those grab-you-by-the-heart moments to those get-into-your-head revelries. When it gets weird, and downright psychedelic (hey there “Kerosene”), it feels right -- the band effortlessly crossing a natural bridge between worlds. Like the master class in this provided by The Grateful Dead before them, they feel comfortable moving in and out of these spaces, completing a circle, making the experience feel whole.
All of this is wrapped in a grand spectacle, a leave-it-all-out-there run at crafting a show rather than a simple performance. Not satisfied to simply mix up setlist choices night by night, they are purposefully pulling levers of a joyful machine: injecting “Go Cubs Go” for Chicagoans during “Take Cover", welcoming their friends in Fruition to the stage, experimenting with new arrangements (hey... a new “Old Barns”), dropping enough jams and teases into “Don’t Lie” (and throughout both shows really) to make your head spin.
Yeah, they’re easy to like, but they work hard so they’re also easy to love.
What we see on stage is a band enjoying each other’s company and creativity. Consider the introduction of members of Fruition. There was genuine mutual respect (“they’re our favorite band”)— a sense of extended family. That spills off the stage and touches everyone who is receptive to it.
This ride together is going to be fun. Hold on and hope for the best.