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Greensky Bluegrass a rule-breaking surprise

Greensky Bluegrass

♦ 7 p.m. Aug. 24

♦ Two Brothers Concert Series, Riveredge Park, Aurora

♦ Tickets, $30-$100

♦ (630) 896-6666;

Updated: August 9, 2013 1:16PM

Ten years ago if you had told the guys in Greensky Bluegrass that hints of a bluegrass-folk-rock blend would be all over the pop charts, they would have called you crazy. But here we are today with bands such as Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers and the Avett Brothers making it big with their distinctive brands of roots music.

Greensky Bluegrass hasn’t yet found that kind of success but among those who know this is a band worth watching. The group was formed in 2000 in Kalamazoo, Mich., by a group of friends who picked up acoustic string instruments — mandolin, dobro, guitar, banjo and upright bass — and got to work making a name for themselves.

“Bluegrass was just a natural choice,” recalls Paul Hoffman who plays mandolin and is one of the band’s songwriters. “In those early years, we were a much more bluegrassy band. As we got better and more experienced we incorporated more of our own personal touches into the music. That old saying ‘You have to learn the rules to break the rules’ applies here.”

Greensky Bluegrass exists alongside bands like The Infamous Stringdusters and Yonder Mountain String Band who are all reworking the music for a new generation of fans without loosing the basic traditions at the roots of bluegrass. The other members of Greensky are Anders Beck (dobro), Michael Arlen Bont (banjo), Dave Bruzza (guitar), Mike Devol (upright bass).

In 2006, at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, one of the country’s premiere string band gatherings, Greensky won the coveted band competition. The win proved to the band that they were on the right track. The 2011 disc, “Handguns,” owes as much to Bill Monroe as it does the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones. In concert, the bands longform jams have endeared them to the jam band crowd without alienating fans of bluegrass.

“We definitely get a cross section of people at our shows,” Hoffman says. “A lot of times younger fans bring their parents. Our hope is that our music is timeless.”

Bluegrass has always appealed to lovers of improvisation. An organic style, it works in a garage, at a campsite or really loud over a club sound system. For Greensky five stringed instruments working together to build a variety of textures is a limitless adventure.

“We’re always asking the question what else can we do with these instruments,” Hoffman explains from a tour stop in Lake Tahoe. “That’s where fusion gets really interesting because we’re always experimenting.”

The band’s 2011 Billboard-charting album, “Handguns,” was a big step in advancing that experiment. It captured the darker side of bluegrass in an artistic way while also highlighting the bands many influences, from ragtime to Jerry Garcia, Ryan Adams, The Beatles and Death Cab for Cutie. The songs have been called “an update to the Dust Bowl ballads written by Woody Guthrie.”

Greensky is currently in the final stages of mastering an as yet unnamed new album due out in October. “There are some newer, cool rock ‘n’ roll things happening on this record,” Hoffman says. “Yet, it’s also very similar in ways to the last album.”

Greensky also is known for its repertoire of unusual cover songs given a bluegrass makeover. Songs by Prince, Lionel Ritchie, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson have all gotten the treatment.

“Anything is fair game,” Hoffman said with a laugh. “It opens our eyes to what the instruments can really do. We’re never going to write a song like The Cure but it’s sure fun to play one of them on bluegrass instruments.”

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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