Greensky Bluegrass Submitted photo

As most of you know by now, I really like discovering new-to-me acts and such is the case with this week’s band from Kalamazoo, Michigan: Greensky Bluegrass. This quintet of talented musicians (Anders Beck on dobro, Michael Arlen Bont on banjo, Dave Bruzza on guitar, Paul Hoffman on mandolin and Mike Devol on upright bass) have been touring and making great music together for 20 years or so. They will be hitting the State Theatre down in Portland on Thursday the 27th of this month and to that end a phoner was arranged with Devol (who wrote the title track of their new CD) on the 8th to learn a little more about his fellow bluegrass brothers and that soon-to-be-released new album “Stress Dreams” on Thirty Tigers Records. I began by asking where I was calling.

Devol: Well, I’m in Denver right now, I’m not at home but I’m in a hotel, we’re playing some shows here last night and tonight.

Q: There’s been some rough times over there in that state of late.
Devol: Yeah, with the fires, it’s been terrible. We had a little fundraiser as part of our shows here today trying to help out the people who have lost their homes, which is sad to see.

Q: Yup, it is. Well, you’re coming up to my fair state of Maine for a performance. Do you get up this way often?
Devol: No, it’s off our beaten path, but we’ve got a tour that’s coming up over January and February which we’ve done year after year. Of course we didn’t have our winter tour in 2021 because COVID had us fully shut down, but the last time we were in Portland, must have been January of 2020, so it’s going on a good two years now. We usually get up there for one show in our sort of reduced bus tour we do in January each year.

Q: Well, you’re hitting the State Theatre this time, which is a pretty good venue.
Devol: Yeah, I love that venue, we’ve been there several times now.

Q: Nice. Now “Stress Dreams” is the new single you have out now, right?
Devol: Yup, it came out yesterday, that’s the title track of our album that we’re releasing on the 21st of this month.

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Q: It must be nice to be able to get out and tour with new material.
Devol: Yeah, for us it really is. We really love making albums and we’ve been working on this one for a lot of this whole COVID existence (chuckle). We spent a lot of our time focusing on it when we were unable to play live for 15 months. We recorded some of it up in almost your neck of the woods, in Vermont, starting in September 2020. So, yeah, we love making albums but we’re really a live band: what we do onstage and in the live-show environments are what define us. We’ve been playing a few of these songs, well, four of them, increasingly over the last handful of months, so going out to do our live shows with 13 more songs in our quiver, especially ones that are original and that we’re excited to play, means a lot and we’re really excited about it.

Q: Now what number album is this for you?
Devol: Well, (chuckle) let me think about that, the first one they released was in 2004 before I joined the band, so this is the eighth studio album among several live releases of stuff we’ve been doing over the years.

Q: Do the songs change much when you hit the stage as opposed to what you recorded in the studio?
Devol: You know, it’s sort of a case-by-case kind of thing. Some songs are sort of made to do just exactly that so when we’re recording them in the studio we are leaving space or an opportunity for it to become a jam section or something that we can improvise. Some songs, more than others, are sort of prepared to be that kind of music and some just sort of stay, they are what they are. But we’ll see because usually the answer for a lot of it, in its early stage, is “we don’t know yet,” we haven’t played it enough on stage, we’ll give them some life over this winter and spring and I’m psyched to see where they head.

Q: Now some groups like to play new material out before they record it.
Devol: You mean play them live?

Q: Yeah, exactly. Over the years I’ve talked with bands that prefer tightening up the songs and getting audience reaction for them before committing to record them.
Devol: We’ve done that with some material in the past but with this new stuff we haven’t had the opportunity to play them out first. They sort of came into existence in the time where we were shut down from touring so they haven’t been given that option. There were a few songs, not on this album, where they came into existence in our live-performance world and when we wanted to include them on our studio albums we had to pare them down and create a studio version that sort of represents what the song is maybe without being like a 15-minute jam odyssey. So it can go both ways, but it’s not the case with any of these songs, it’s been unique with this album.

Q: How so?
Devol: Usually, when we are recording we are also out playing live, as well, so it’s really the first album we’ve done that hasn’t been developed in the same way, so it’s the exception to our general rule.

Q: What is it about touring again that you’re looking forward to the most?
Devol: There’s something about getting in a bus and being together for like consecutive days that really gets us in a connected and musical place, and I’m looking forward to sort of being there again, in the throes of a tour there is something that we can accomplish musically, sort of effortlessly at that point being totally immersed in it, it’s a kind of special thing for our band.

Q: Is there anything, Mike, that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article about your return to Portland?
Devol: Just that we’re really excited to be coming back, and the show is going to be great, too. There’s something snowy and arctic about Portland that I really tend to enjoy, it seems to be always real wintery when we come, we’ve been there in some really big snow storms, so hopefully people will brave the cold and come out to see us, because we’re definitely coming.

Lucky Clark, a 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award winner, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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