Greensky Bluegrass with The Teskey Brothers & Sierra Ferrell
Red Rocks Amphitheater – Morrison, CO – Sept. 15 & 16, 2023
Review & Photos – Rebecca Wolf
There are no words to adequately describe or paint an all-encompassing picture of Red Rocks. I’m not even sure pictures can do this incredible amphitheater justice. That’s because there’s more to Red Rocks Amphitheater than the phenomenal beauty of the enormous rock formations surrounding the seating for approximately 9500 nestled between the rocks, and more than the stunning skyline views from atop the amphitheater’s 192 stairs. There’s even more to Red Rocks than the amazing acoustics created by the towering geological structures. To understand Red Rocks you need to be there, to experience the feeling. Standing in the middle of Red Rocks and looking up, looking down, looking all around, an almost indescribable sense of awe and wonder washes over you. It’s a feeling of openness, of vastness, of freedom. It’s a feeling similar to the calmness your body feels after taking a deep breath and slowly letting out the air. And, I don’t think this is attributable to being at an altitude of 6,450 feet. At the moment one might not even recognize they are feeling anything in particular, other than an overall sense of peace.
Peacefulness brings a lot of joy. Tensions ease, walls are dropped and concertgoers are more open to communicating and sharing positive vibes with one another. This was what I experienced on September 15th & 16th when I attended Red Rocks for a two-day performance by Greensky Bluegrass…a bluegrass jam band. Jam bands typically bring with them a very loyal fanbase who are become fully absorbed in the music…mind, body and spirit. They sing, they dance, they close their eyes and feel the music. This was the energy exhibited by Greensky Bluegrass fans and multiplied the aura of Red Rocks by thousands.
On September 15th the day threatened to be a wash-out for much of the day but by mid-day the rain stopped and by late afternoon the clouds parted to showcase blue Colorado skies. However, temperatures weren’t as cooperative and a crispness in the air remained, turning to chilliness by evening and briskness by night. At the top of Red Rocks, with the wind, it was downright cold. But, clear skies at the start of the evening brought thrilled fans swarming into the venue, climbing stairs and choosing seats on the redwood benches. There’s no bad view or bad sound anywhere at Red Rocks. Although the stage is obviously further away the higher you go, screens flanking either side of the stage provide detailed images. The higher you climbed the more you were able to see and feel the enormity of the amphitheater, the red rocks, and the crowd, as well as the vastness of what lay beyond.
Opening for Greensky Bluegrass on the 15th were The Teskey Brothers, a blues rock band hailing from Australia, with Josh Teskey, on vocals and rhythm guitar, Sam Teskey, on lead guitar, and a full touring band. The Teskey Brothers are currently touring their recently released album The Winding Way, the band’s third studio album. The cheers and hoots from the crowd from the beginning of their opening jam “Paint My Heart,” from 2019’s Run Home Slow were ample indication that this band has a passionate fanbase. While I had not previously heard The Teskey Brothers’ music, hearing the incredibly rich, gritty, emotive vocals of Josh, the voice of a man who appears to have lived the blues, combined with the wails of Sam’s intense, dynamic guitar licks, I quickly learned the enthusiasm for this band was surely warranted. Throughout the 50 minute set, the brothers remained at the helm, highlighting their musical artistry, while the melodic sounds emanating from the keyboards, drums and bass, as well as the saxophone and trumpet, enhanced the depth and emotionality of the music.
During the final number, a jam session of “What Will Be,” the audience remained on their feet, clapping to the rhythmic maraca beat, as the instrumental ensemble played with vigorous intensity and gospel-like vocals cut through the night sky. Josh transitioned to an extended, fiery harmonica piece, before returning to soaring vocals, and bringing the number to its culmination with the passionate beating of the drums, blasts of the horns, jams on the guitars, and squeals on the harmonica. The crowd roared, the stage went black and this was just the start of the evening.
As the chill of the night began to settle over the amphitheater the thousands in attendance, already energized by The Teskey Brothers’ powerful performance, eagerly awaited the arrival of Greensky Bluegrass. As the band emerged for the first night of their annual two-night Red Rocks run, ten years since their 2013 Red Rocks debut, a kaleidoscope of lights illuminated the stage and cast a vibrant glow on each band member. These band members, Paul Hoffman, on mandolin and lead vocals, Michael Arlen Bont on banjo, Dave Bruzza on guitar and vocals, Mike Devol on upright bass and Anders Beck on dobro, are each incredibly skilled in their own right. I have yet to encounter anyone’s vocals that can be compared to the wonderfully unique, textured and throaty tone of Hoffman, who strums his mandolin at lightning speed. Bont is a whiz on banjo, his fingers moving as if running a race, while Devol, a classically trained musician, passionately plays his upright bass with dynamic rhythm. In addition to showcasing exceptional guitar skills, Bruzza impresses with deep, melodic vocals and Beck is a demon on the dobro, with fingers and hands masterfully sliding along the instrument strings.
Impressive as these gentlemen are individually, after almost two decades as a quintet they are a force to be reckoned with when together. Performing beside each other, across the expanse of the stage-front, they play like a band of brothers, unconsciously in sync, playing off one another, and giving each other space to shine, their songs seamlessly morph into extended jam sessions. Like the song “Grow Together,” from the band’s 2022 album Stress Dreams, these bandmates have continued to grow, evolve and hone their musical skills together. Performing this fan favorite during the evening’s first set, Hoffman dedicated the song, originally written for his wife and daughter, to two of his crew members and their wives, who are soon to be parents.
Additional favorites during the first set included, “What You Need” and “Courage for the Road,” from 2019’s All For Money, “Demons,” from 2014’s If Sorrows Swim, and “Fixin’ to Ruin” from 2016’s Shouted, Written Down & Quoted. The first set ending with new songs “Entirely Mine” and “Solstice.” The electrifying second set included “Broke Mountain Breakdown,” written by Anders Beck with his first band The Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band, a cover of Harry Styles “Late Night Talking,” as well as “In Control,” “A Letter to Seymour” and “Kerosene,” all from If Sorrows Swim, the last of which, in keeping with the title, brought blasts of glowing orange flames.The heat from these fiery blasts was welcomed by all who were lucky enough to feel the flames, as the dropping temperature led a number of audience members to call it quits for the night. However, diehard fans warmed themselves during the evening’s finale, a cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” energetically singing, dancing and hooting, as sparklers and blasts of fire lit the stage to close the night.
Night two began on a warmer note, with bright blue skies, higher temperatures and a Saturday performance bringing larger crowds. While the amphitheater looked crowded the evening prior, it appeared close to sold out this second evening and there was a more palpable feeling of energy and excitement. There must have been something in the air, maybe a lack of oxygen, as the higher spirits appeared to have reached the backstage as well, as the house photographer shared, “I saw the band members backstage and they were in really great moods!” This joyful energy was observed from the moment the band hit the stage, as my friend who was with me at both shows commented, “The band looked so happy tonight….right from the start of the show.”
Prior to the arrival of Greensky Bluegrass, the evening began with country folk singer-songwriter Sierra Ferrell and her band, including Geoff Saunders, bass, Josh Rilko, mandolin, and Oliver Bates Craven, fiddle and guitar. From the cheers in the crowd upon Ferrell’s onstage arrival I again realized that this weekend’s opening acts are established musicians with a strong fanbase, musicians I need to be taking note of. Ferrell’s vocals are powerful, clear and have a strong country flair. Ferrell played an incredible fiddle jam with Bates Craven on “Fox Hunt” and beautifully harmonized with Rilko and Bates Craven on “The Garden.” During “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” Anders Beck joined on dobro, as Ferrell played guitar during this passionate country jam. Ferrell’s incredible vocal abilities were most notably on display during her performance of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” where she sang with a deep, powerful, gusto that had the crowd cheering and whistling.
Greensky Bluegrass’s increased upbeat spirit was well-suited for the evening’s opening number, Stress Dreams’ “Give a Shit,” a song that can put a smile on everyone’s face, as who doesn’t feel sometimes that they just don’t “give a shit.” The set followed with earlier numbers,“Old Barns” from 2008’s Five Interstates and Bloodsucking F(r)iends from 2011’s Handguns, before a debut of the band’s forthcoming song “Distracted.” Bringing Ferrell onstage for a cover of Zach Brown’s “Holy Roller,” her sweet flowing vocals balanced Hoffman’s textured throaty tones, creating a magical duet. Ferrell’s bandmates, Bates Craven and Rilko later joined Greensky Bluegrass onstage for “Burn Them,” from If Sorrows Swim, creating a full stage of string players showcasing burning hot jams, as pyrotechnic blasts of fire lit the stage and the rock formation backdrop was illuminated in a vibrant red.
This evening’s performance felt longer. With no evening temperature drops to chase fans away, the crowd remained on their feet, passionately dancing, jumping, swinging their arms in the air and singing along. If a jam continued for ten minutes audience members continued at full octane for the entire jam. One just had to look at their faces to witness pure joy. While Greensky Bluegrass always has a phenomenal light show that amplifies the energy and spirit of the music, you merely have to feel their music to connect. As I inched by some gentleman, attempting to position myself for some photos, a man commented to his dancing friend, “Someone is walking by,” before commenting to me, “blind man.” As I stood taking photos I glanced towards this gentleman, passionately dancing with abandonment, with no visuals necessary.
Additional songs included “Burn Them” and Windshield from If Sorrows Swim, “Run or Die” from Shouted, Written Down & Quoted and “Screams” from Stress Dreams. The band also performed several covers, including, “Handle With Care,” by The Traveling Wilbury’s, “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” by The Stanley Brothers and Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.” However, the most visually fantastical moment of the night came during a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” which included the requisite fire blasts, beaming spotlights, bursts of white light and disco balls sprinkling rotating lights around like snowflakes. As the performance ended with “Living Over,” a smoking tune from Shouted, Written Down & Quoted, fans danced until the very last note reverberated off the towering red rocks and floated off into the atmosphere.
There’s nothing like Red Rocks. There can’t be. It feels almost magical. It can’t be explained in words and pictures can’t do it justice. It’s not just a place, it’s a feeling. While I’m sure there’s “a feeling” for any musical performance at Red Rocks, having only attended during Greensky Bluegrass that’s the energy and spirit I want to feel again. I went to Red Rocks thinking this was a once in a lifetime experience. I guess next year I might have to break that plan of “once.”