The Fillmore Philadelphia – Philadelphia, PA – February 3, 2024
Review & Photos – Rebecca Wolf
“What band are you photographing this weekend?” I was asked by several people before heading to The Fillmore Philadelphia to see Greensky Bluegrass on February 3rd. For those unfamiliar with this bluegrass jam band, Greensky Bluegrass is a band that can be challenging to succinctly describe or define. While their five acoustic string instruments, the mandolin, banjo, upright bass, guitar and dobro can be part of a “typical” bluegrass band, their sound is beyond the boundaries of anything typically bluegrass. Greensky Bluegrass incorporates the energy of rock and roll with the spirit and jive of a jam band. I think the best words to describe their music, and especially their live performances, are engaging, exhilarating and mesmerizing. The moment these five musical artists, Paul Hoffman, mandolin/vocals, Michael Arlen Bont, banjo/vocals, Mike Devol, upright bass/vocals and Anders Beck, dobro, arrive onstage to begin their rousing performance, they individually and collectively grab your attention and lock you in. While Hoffman, with his distinct vocal timbre, sings lead on a majority of the numbers, the band showcases impressive harmonies. Twenty years since the release of their debut album, Greensky Bluegrass continues tour each year, as their loyal fanbase flocks to venues and festivals across the US.
At The Fillmore Philadelphia passionate Greensky Bluegrass fans packed the 2,500 capacity main room, filling the general admission floor space and the VIP balcony seats. Hoots and whistles rang out from the crowd as the musicians entered the stage under dimmed lights. The band members quietly began strumming the opening lines of “New & Improved,” from 2022’s Stress Dreams, as the hushed crowd became immediately mesmerized, swaying in their tight spaces. Under a brightening spotlight guitarist Bruzza began singing lead vocals, while bandmates accompanied on strings. With the song reaching it’s climactic refrain, flashing lights bathed the stage in a rainbow of colors, as Hoffman heightened the energy with his fast mandolin picking and textured vocal harmonies. The opening number stretched into an extended instrumental jam, highlighting each musician’s incredible string skills.
The band took no time intensifying their electrifying pace as they segued into the invigorating, lightening-quick picking and strumming of “Better Off,” from 2011’s “Handguns.” As incredible as it was to hear the speed at which these musicians played their instruments, it was equally as thrilling to watch their fingers move at such a breathtaking rate. The musician whose speed did not play a significant factor in his performance was Devol on upright bass. Rather, Devol’s integral role was carrying the beat, adding foot-tapping dimension and character to each number, whether the songs were upbeat and invigorating, like the 12-minute jam of Forhorn Stringband’s “Reuben’s Train,” or the slower and contemplative pace of “Wish I Didn’t Know,” from 2019’s “All for Money.”
“Hit Parade of Love,” the Jimmy Martin bluegrass standard, created the mood of a spirited parade with vibrantly colored stage lights, a round robin of banjo, mandolin, dobro and guitar solos performed at rapid speed, incredible vocal harmonies and a baseline that kept all moving to the beat. The audience was abuzz with excitement, as the men to my right locked elbows and twirled in circles and fans to my left waved their arms in the air. Additional songs during the evening’s first set included “Can’t Make Time,” “Exactly Where I Am,” and “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” a fast-moving, hoedown-like number, with Bruzza on lead vocals and spotlighting speed-demon string picking.
The evening’s hour and a quarter second set was jam packed, from “The Radio Blues,” an exuberant, bluesy number, to the shadowy, deep “Screams,” to the foot-tapping, bouncy “Broke Mountain Breakdown.” Before embarking on this extended jam Beck enthusiastically addressed the crowd. “This is that song that goes on for like 2 hours. So, I hope you don’t have anything to do!” he laughed to the hoots of the crowd. With a spotlight on Beck the song opened with rapid-fire dobro-picking. After highlighting Beck, the spotlight traveled to Bont to shine a light on his extraordinary banjo playing, before moving to Bruzza, then Hoffman and back again to Beck to start the round over again. This frenetic pace onstage kept the audience completely enthralled. Their heads bobbed up down and their arms waved in the air throughout the ten-minute jam, continuing into the folksy cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “The Great Atomic Power.”
“I grew up here and have a lot of fond memories,” Beck shared with the crowd. “This person, I put him right up there….Will Smith, Rocky and Tom Hamilton (Joe Russo’s Almost Dead guitarist.) That’s a Philly top three for me. I think there should be a statue in Philly for him!” The crowd cheered as Tom Hamilton arrived onstage to join the band in an electrifying performance of “Worry for You.” Continuing an extended instrumental jam, the band segued into “Worried About the Weather,” showcasing beautiful vocal harmonies, incredible string solos and Hamilton rocking out on his electric guitar.
With the inclusion of Hamilton, the evening ended with a powerful, rock and roll, Greensky Bluegrass version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” Hoffman, with passionate, growling vocals and furious swings of his long hair, was instantly transformed into a rocker, albeit on a mandolin. The stage was aglow with flashing bolts of red, orange and white lights, as the crowd danced and cheered until the moment the stage went black. I’m not sure there are better words to describe Greensky Bluegrass than engaging, exhilarating and mesmerizing. If a Greensky Bluegrass performance this isn’t an indication of how this band goes well beyond the boundaries of “typical” bluegrass, I don’t know what is.