Posted by Dale Obbie
Greensky Bluegrass, an acoustic string band quickly gaining critical acclaim for its boundary-blurring brand of homegrown bluegrass, released "Handguns" on Oct. 4. Throughout its fourth and most mature album to date, the five-person band finds a stable balance between their dedication to pureblooded bluegrass and their ongoing search for a new sound.
Some people might expect jangling barnyard noises when they hear the word "bluegrass," but Greensky Bluegrass defies this narrow sketch. The band members draw heavily upon the rootsy side of the Grateful Dead, an influence that becomes clear when their songs' instrumental jams reach the 14-minute mark during live performances.
Already a mainstay in the jam band scene, they have been performing some of the songs from "Handguns" for several years at some of the largest music festivals across the country, including the All Good Festival and the Electric Forest Festival this past summer.
The psychedelic landscape depicted by the band's name accurately represents its efforts to expand the limits of its beloved genre, while still remaining true to an authentic bluegrass sound. In "Handguns," there's as much green sky as there is bluegrass. For instance, "Bring Out Your Dead" is a grungy, blues-laden song that experiments with distortion effects — an interesting concept for an acoustic band — giving the mandolin, guitar and dobro a gritty edge.
Fan favorite "I'd Probably Kill You" is equally adventurous with its novel use of a horn section. It is playful, swinging and rich with vocal harmonies. It features a jazzy mandolin solo from Paul Hoffman, a slip-sliding dobro solo from Anders Beck and, keeping with its party spirit, ends with a New Orleans-style group improvisation between the horns.
"No Idea" and "Beauty and Pain" give the album a melancholy side, but it is a lull in the mood that reassures rather than depresses the listener. Even the band's most gloomy songs bring with them a promise to uplift: "Cold Feet" brings you to a wintry mountainside with its wistful lyrics, but its brisk, banjo-driven energy will warm your blood and revitalize your mood.
Likewise, "All Four," a staple of the band's live shows, is at first pensive and regretful, but starts to brighten toward the end of the song. Hoffman sings, "I've been weary at the wheel so long / think of all that I've passed up / wonder how I've come this far," but then resolves to keep his "head above the ground" and "all four wheels on the road." To a similar effect, the eight-minute instrumental jam shifts seamlessly from fretful tension to the most relaxed and cheerful six minutes of the album, ending the album on a high note.
Without a doubt, Greensky Bluegrass has given us its best yet with "Handguns" — music that will appeal to diehard bluegrass fans and newcomers alike.