Flying Solo with Greensky Bluegrass
Photo by Allen Erwin
It’s just after sundown and I’m standing on my back patio with one hand held in the air, slowly waving from side to side, as though that’s the best way to feel out the weather on a night in Los Angeles. Tonight the pre-show flying solo jitters are disguised as a battle between taking a light Southwestern-print sweater or military jacket (holler at my ladies with similar struggles). In a city that very much thrives on the see and be seen mentality, I take a moment to ask myself, “Does anyone even go to concerts in LA alone?” It’s been five years since my cross-country move and I’m still feeling out the playground that is the City of Angels.
I quickly answer my own question, reminding myself of the countless shows I’ve been to alone in just the past few months to scope out potential new clients for my company, Red Boot PR. But there’s still something different about going to a show because it’s your job (albeit one you love and wouldn’t give up for anything), versus entirely for pleasure. Work shows have a distinct purpose, and the latter, much like Tom Hamilton of American Babies alluded to last summer, allow you to choose to be anyone you want to be that night. This is the reason that on this flying solo adventure, I chose to interview Greensky Bluegrass’ dobro player, Anders Beck, a few days after their show at The Troubadour in November. I had no prior connection to the artist, and there was nothing business about it, just live music for the love and curiosity of it.
Sweater in hand, I push open The Troubadour’s double doors from the bar to the stage. The usual stench of sweat and stale Bud Light is masked by sweet California herb. As I scan the room, or at least as much as a barely 5′ 2″ chick can see, I spot a middle aged woman in a Dead shirt beside a 20-something guy with a hemp necklace to the far right of the stage. I wedge my way between them, and they kindly nod their heads at me, parting to make a little room. Throughout the night I’d find California heads to be incredibly considerate and gentle, at least in comparison to New York (sorry, guys). Anders Beck also notes that the fanbase that Greensky Bluegrass has developed is now “super awesome,” and at their shows it’s not uncommon to potentially make some new, really good friends. “There’s a Camp Greensky Facebook group,” he says, “that has grown to a huge group of people that are all friends. They started on the Internet and now the friendships are in real life, with the one mutual tie being the band, but evolving into something much bigger. From that perspective, you’d probably rather go to one of our shows alone than a death metal one.”
New friends by my side, I committed to my spot on the dance floor just as Paul Hoffman’s mandolin kicked off “Working on a Building.” Greensky Bluegrass’ first set was full of long instrumentals with well-executed dynamics. The band casually held the audience in solid rhythmic patterns and at times it was hard to believe there was no traditional percussion on stage. Anders Beck is a man who gives credit where credit is due. “Aside from us having a killer crew that makes us sound great every night,” he says, “in a room like The Troubadour, the way our sound engineer Greg explains it, certain rooms work to our advantage and others don’t.” Technically speaking, due to a lack of on-stage monitors, with the exception of the bass amp there’s no sound coming off of the stage, so the PA in the room is 100% creating the sound you’re hearing in the audience. Anders adds, “The Troubadour is a tiny room; it’s almost so small that you can’t have the usual social experience without people around you saying, ‘Hey, you’re being loud and annoying.’ That room requires you to be particularly attentive and focused on the band, and that’s always great.”
It quickly became clear to this Greensky Bluegrass newbie that the band knows what they’re doing, like an unassumingly experienced young lover. “There are a lot of people still being turned onto us,” he says. “They’re probably the most interesting to me because they’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on at a show. With the word ‘bluegrass’ in the name of the band, they might have thought they were going to get a traditional bluegrass band, and all of a sudden they’re at this weird, rock ‘n roll, psychedelic experience of banjos and songs.” He pauses and laughs. “I don’t even know how to describe it!” By the end of set one, Greensky Bluegrass had bodies moving and endorphins running. The set break allowed the audience enough down time and reflection, that when the band later returned to us, we all seemed ready to expose our hearts to whatever was thrown at us.
Set two was full of stories and musical courting. “Forget Everything” and “All Four” could make any girl flying solo feel the cozy warmth of a serenade by the campfire, and Greensky Bluegrass’ cover of “Dancing in the Dark” offered a safe space for both men and women to erupt together in song. “Demons” followed, a song that both sonically and lyrically sent me down a momentary memory lane to my good ol’ days hopping around New England with Hot Day at the Zoo. I get the sense from Anders that that sort of personal reflection is intentional and hoped for. “Paul Hoffman and Dave Bruzza are both amazing lyricists, in my opinion,” he says. “They write songs for you to think about. I think you can learn a lot about yourself listening to those words.”
On the topic of learning about oneself, we dive into the potential internal dialogues about flying solo. Anders Beck says he understands the “weird anxiety,” and although he has no problem going to a concert alone, he admits, “I’m definitely afraid of going to a movie alone. Never done it, probably never will. I think it’s because I think I’ll go sit down in the theatre, and then someone I know will come up right in front of me and be like, ‘Oh hey, Anders, what are you doing? Are you waiting for someone?’ I don’t know. It’s so illogical, but it’s real.” Illogical, irrational, total head-trippy stuff is a common thread when flying solo to anything, and it’s a phenomenon that fascinates me. Ultimately though, musicians and music fans seem to agree that it’s worth pushing through for the personal experience. “To go experience these songs alone and hopefully be able to just focus on that, to have someone sing these words to you that are profound, intelligent and make you think, as well as make you dance, offers a potentially introspective experience,” he says. (I personally call upon all filmmakers to try to lure Anders Beck into a movie theatre with the guarantee of an equally incredible thoughtful solo experience.)
Maybe it was my lyric-induced inward thinking and blissful reminiscing, or the warmth and camaraderie of their fans, but by the time the disco ball was illuminated and a gentle sea of light bubbles danced around the room, it felt like the vibe had mellowed out to one of comfort and family. Greensky Bluegrass eased me in with tasteful musicianship and won me over with subtle intimacy. They remained behind their mics, but never felt untouchable. Maybe that’s because when you break it down, the jam community of musicians and fans is often quick to embrace our shared personal experiences. After all, Anders Beck was the kind of teenager who did 3-night Grateful Dead runs on school nights, and his first flying solo adventure was also his first Phish show. “It was at the Howard Theatre in Philadelphia in 1992. Nobody wanted to go with me, and I was just learning about the band. My dad dropped me off around the corner so I wouldn’t look like a dork by myself. I was a young musician into the music, and it was a total life changer.” Now being the ones on stage, Anders and his bandmates look out onto the Greensky Bluegrass audience with understanding, appreciation and excitement for those who brave the weird anxiety for that special, personal experience with the music.