Greensky Bluegrass play ACL Fest and Harvest Fest!
Michigan band Greensky Bluegrass have been impressing audiences for years with their style of rock and Americana influenced bluegrass that manages to stay true to the form. Over the next couple weeks we will be seeing a lot of Greensky Bluegrass as they make their Austin City Limits Festival debut this Saturday and next, and move on to play Yonder Mountain String Band's Harvest Festival in Ozark, Arkansas the following week. Recently Neil Ferguson caught up with Greensky's upright bassist Mike Devol.
Neil Ferguson: Does the band tailor a set differently if you are playing a big festival like ACL where most people probably haven’t seen you before, as opposed to a regular show or bluegrass fest?
Mike Devol: In some ways yes, I guess we choose material based on where we are playing. We don't cater to, let's say, if it's a bluegrass festival versus a rock festival. I think we've always made a point not to water down what we do for either audience in either way. I think there's a mindset sometimes with a band like us who sort of does both the traditional and very non-traditional bluegrass to play a sort of set that appeals to that audience. But we sort of try to avoid that as our intention. We try to just preserve what we do specifically, which is a blend of the two [rock and bluegrass]. We always play different sets too. We don't have like a festival set. Austin City Limits is a big deal and we're excited about it because it is going to be exposure to new fans. But it's not like we're going to play some percolated festival set - and it's two weekends so I would expect two different sets. I would expect something special that we are going to bring to Austin City Limits because of the sort of genre qualifications.
What are your thoughts on the double weekend format festival where the lineup is essentially the same each weekend?
It's interesting to me because I haven't been to a festival that's done that. I think it could be cool. I'd be interested to see if the bands playing both weekends will play the same set, because I think a lot of bands do kind of have a festival set that they perform and I'd be curious to see if some of those bands are going to do that two weekends in a row. I imagine we won't be repeating any songs unless there's something that we really want to play.
After ACL you go right on to Harvest Fest, which is in a lot of ways the opposite type of festival compared to ACL.
Yeah, Harvest Fest is great. We've done it a couple of times before and we all really enjoy it. Honestly, that's one of the many things I enjoy about being in the band I'm in; it's exciting for me to be able to coexist in the environments. Like with ACL everybody is playing that festival, it's so multi-genre, there's so much going on, and it represents a lot of the indie rock world, which I'm into. It's cool to be in that sort of more encompassing musical environment. And then Harvest Fest sort of represents the niche where we have grown and thrived, and we have a devoted following there. It's put on by Yonder Mountain String Band, who I guess kind of broke some of the boundaries in what we do, like the progressive bluegrass thing and the jam foundation. It's cool for me to take what we do into the more foreign environment that we'll experience at ACL - foreign because it's varied. It's cool for me that with Greensky you can be the sort of the token bluegrass rock band at a rock festival and also we're kind of like that rock, rebel bluegrass band at a more Americana festival.
Greensky Bluegrass at Old Settler's 2012
Have you found that the mainstream success of bluegrass-influenced rock and pop groups has strengthened your fanbase and introduced Greensky to new people?
Yeah. I'm blown away by the success of bands like The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers. They are selling incredible amounts of records, and it's folk music with banjos! Acoustic instruments are a lot of what's popular today with young audiences. The Avett Brothers have done an amazing thing for everybody that plays a banjo, an instrument that was never widely accepted as being cool now is. Teenagers thinking it's cool to play the banjo could never hurt us. Those bands have a definite pop appeal and I think we have some of that, but we also have some stuff that's different. We are more of a bluegrass band than some of these bands that have become wildly popular. We've spent years honing our chops and learning the craft, and it's that kind of stuff that makes us capable of what we are playing. I guess the dedication to specific tradition for us is a little more important. In a way I think that our differences from these bands are our strengths, and at the same time I think they are kind of what has kept us out of the super popular appeal. When we play bluegrass we play bluegrass and a lot of people aren't ready for that because it's such tradition. We get instrumentally really involved and extended at times, and that sort of jam sentiment that we've always appreciated in the bands we grew up loving - The Grateful Dead, Phish - that isn't always the popular choice. I wonder if The Avett Brothers started going into some extended instrumental jam at some point how their fans would feel about that.
Greensky Bluegrass at Old Settler's 2012
Does the band write songs that are structured around improv or does that just get worked in over time and practice?
Sometimes having an open instrumental section in the middle of a song serves that song, and that's what we strive to do. Especially more recently in our songwriting. One thing that has maintained is the fact that there are solos taken, and in the general arrangement of the song it's common for us to add a banjo solo or a dobro solo. We set up our arrangements to allow solos, and that's a particularly bluegrass approach to song arrangements. I think that we're finding that, as our tastes change and as we progress as writers and instrumentalists, that [solo arrangement] doesn't always serve the song. There are cases where, if we think we don't need the solo section, we take that out in order to preserve what we think is the best way to present the song. Some songs merit an open package in the middle, and when we arrange those we design them in that way. A lot of the songs we really jam on are our older songs. With our writing recently the jam sections come from more of a texture approach as opposed to being like 'hey, let's jam on this chord and you just take a solo and drag it for a while.' While we still do that in certain numbers, what we've been trying to do lately with our shows has been sort of a texture-centered thing more so than an open jam.
Greensky Bluegrass at Harvest Fest 2011
The last album, Handguns came out in 2011. Has the band been working on a follow-up?
The new album is finished. We recorded in January over a two-week stint. It was really similar to how we did Handguns; we did it in the studio with the same engineer and we produced it ourselves. I don't know if we have officially confirmed our title, so I won't tell you that, but we're expecting it out in January of 2014. We're real proud of it, and the music part is finished. We're so stoked to have new material. It's a continuation I think of sort of the same direction as Handguns, but at the same time it's a new direction. We'll make a big deal about it when it's ready to come out.
Greensky Bluegrass at ACL:
Sat, Oct. 5th | 5:30 - 6:30 PM - Zilker Tent Stage
Sat, Oct. 12th | 5:30 - 6:30 PM - Zilker Tent Stage
Greensky Bluegrass at Harvest Music Festival:
Thurs, Oct. 17 I 5:15 - 6:30 PM - Main Stage
Fri, October 18 I 2:15 - 3:00AM - Harvest Tent
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Austin City Limits Music Festival takes place October 4-6 and 11-13 at Zilker Park
For passes, full lineup, and more check out aclfestival.com