Greensky Bluegrass – Stress Dreams: Album Review

Greensky Bluegrass are Bluegrass practitioners in a parallel world from which they seem to have become a Grateful Dead hybrid.

The core trio, Paul Hoffman mandolin, Dave Bruzza guitar and Michael Bont banjo came together in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2000. Essentially an American string band, they honed their craft through countless open mike sessions.

At the musical mecca of Colorado’s Telluride Bluegrass festival in 2006, they won the Band’s contest and the following year they were included in the headlining acts. By that time the regular ensemble included Anders Beck dobro and Mike Devol bass.

The band is prolific. Stress Dreams is their nineteenth album. They have collaborated with many of the current Americana artists as well as Grateful Dead old-timers Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann. Founder Jerry Garcia was originally a banjo picker.

Greensky Bluegrass – Stress Dreams

The Sun at the heart of this pure American music is the legendary Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys of 1945 which included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. That world keeps expanding and contracting like any universe.

The Greensky boys have a grounding in tradition and pull in other elements of Rock’n’Roll in their gravitational pull. On this album it fails to engage fully and often meanders rather than developing tension.

Absence of Reason and the banjo kicks it off with classic forward rolls and ringing tones. Leads the song which is good as the lyrics get quite ponderous.

Familiar ensemble style playing as each instrument takes a break. Bluegrass and Be-Bop Jazz share the same inspiration. Both were an attempt to wrestle music from current traditional practitioners and make it difficult for the old folks to follow.

On Monument the tempo is faster but the solos sound too clinical and cerebral. Saved by some fast-stepping and twirling when the singer comes on.

Until I Sing. The voices whip up some passion and angst and it has the drive of a Creedence Clearwater tune. And I feel worthless/ Without a purpose/ Until I sing for you.

In these strange days when musicians are being pulled into a fatal undertow, the song is a cry from the soul as to what ultimately gives them purpose.

Stress Dreams. One of the highlights. Sophisticated Folk Pop in the manner of a Paul Simon when he made Graceland. The vocal harmony approaches the smooth blend of the early Byrds. This time the musicians stretch out and gradually Eastern tones materialise. A little Miserlou and the quieter passages of Paul Butterfield Band’s East-West.

Streetlight is a nice Country Lament and the musical interplay propels this into a reverie of redemption. If I were a traffic light/ I’d work all day and all night/Shine down on my red, yellow and green. Ideal for the Johnny Cash who recorded the American series with Rick Rubin.

Greensky Bluegrass – Stress Dreams

The music elevates the song above the clumsiness of the lyrics. But then you hear this. No, love ain’t a diamond you find in the rough/ Love is just love, barely enough. They connect to the mystic element of the Original Carter Family. Someone is playing a Duane Allman sounding fat swampy slide guitar. It doesn’t sound like a dobro.

That guitar sound is also on Grew Together. Has the Bluegrass rhythm but the music is given space and the drone effect has the faint echoes of Tom Petty’s American Girl.

Reasons to Stay and they do sound like a revved-up String Band with Clarence White guitar tones.

For Bluegrass addicts out there, it is worthwhile checking out the five albums they released in 2021 as the Leap Year Sessions. 122 assorted songs of live-in studio, outtakes, jams, improvs. You’ll hear Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Backstep, Jimmy Martin’s Hit Parade of Love, Little Maggie, Jesus on the Mainline.  

Rev Orange Peel