Photo: Dylan Langille / Courtesy of the artist

Greensky Bluegrass Plug in and Jam Out on ‘All for Money’

Greensky Bluegrass has always been a band prone to jamming, but in the studio, they have generally kept the songs briefer. But All for Money finds them confidently stretching out on multiple occasions. And they manage to make it work each time.

All for Money
Greensky Bluegrass
Blue Zoo / Thirty Tigers
18 January 2019

Greensky Bluegrass‘ seventh studio album begins with the sound of a cord being plugged into an electric guitar and the unmistakable hum of an amp. The largely acoustic band from Kalamazoo, Michigan, has used an electric guitar sporadically in the past, but that intro feels like a statement. It turns out that Greensky hasn’t “gone electric”, precisely, but the instrument does make multiple appearances on All for Money. And this opening track, “Do It Alone”, has an unmistakable electric snarl to it that justifies that very rock and roll beginning.

Bassist Michael Devol drives the opening with a simple repeated note full of tension, while dobro player Anders Beck counterpoints it with ringing electric chords. Mandolinist/lead vocalist Paul Hoffman enters with vocals and rhythmic mandolin chunks on the off beats, followed shortly afterward by Dave Bruzza on acoustic guitar and Michael Arlen Bont on banjo. The chorus laments, “Why do we do it alone?” before the band launches into a series of short but fiery solos from the mandolin and banjo. The next run through the chorus adds the statement “I can’t do it alone” to the initial question and gives Beck his own solo that extends through the rest of the song.

For a band with no drummer, “Do It Alone” rocks pretty hard, but Greensky is not particularly interested in melting faces with heavy riffs and blazing solos; at least not for an entire album. The very next song, “Murder of Crows”, features Bruzza on lead vocals with his baritone voice. Appropriately, this is much more of a traditional wistful bluegrass song. Musically it rolls along on jangling guitars and fast-picked banjo while Devol’s bass and Hoffman’s mandolin mostly hold down the rhythm. Lyrically the song seems to be about a broken relationship, but the violent imagery in those lyrics (“She wrote it all down / With an eagle’s feather / Dipped in cocaine and blood”) leaves open the possibility that it wasn’t just a nasty breakup.

Greensky Bluegrass has always been a band prone to jamming, but in the studio, they have generally kept the songs briefer. But All for Money finds them confidently stretching out on multiple occasions. And they manage to make it work each time. “What You Need” goes on for nearly seven minutes, spacing the verses and choruses out between different types of jams. The first break finds different members soloing right in the bouncy, bluegrass pocket of the song, but the longer second break has the band going into an expansive, bright, spacey jam, reminiscent of Phish, particularly in Beck’s very Trey Anastasio-like electric guitar solo late in the song.

“Courage for the Road” is the album’s longest track at just over nine minutes. It begins as an upbeat bluegrass song, with a very strong pre-chorus in particular, featuring some high-quality vocal harmonies. The jam on this one begins with traditionally traded solos, but it stretches out into more esoteric territory as it goes along without ever losing the fast pace of the initial song. And when the chorus finally comes back in just past the seven-and-a-half minute mark, it feels natural when it could’ve very easily been forced.

But the emotional high points of the album mostly come during the shorter songs. “Collateral Damage” is a mid-tempo country song sung with a healthy tinge of sadness by Hoffman. It’s another bad relationship song, with the narrator looking for any way he can to stay near his uninterested object of affection. “I don’t wanna be towed like baggage / Or left behind like the wreckage / Maybe I could be loved as a means to an end / Like collateral damage” is a pretty depressing chorus, but it’s also extremely effective.

Michael Arlen Bont’s one lead vocal on the record, “Cathedral Eyes” is another highlight. This easygoing song features what seems like a comfortable couple, with the chorus, “I smoke in the moonlight to catch a breath / You scold me I’ll catch my death of cold.” But it takes a turn in the back end of the refrain with “You always imagined that I had something left / But I’m the only one you never told.” The album’s jaunty penultimate track, “Do Harm”, is a song of the “I love you, but I’m a touring musician” variety. But it’s effective with its bittersweet chorus, “But it’s real when you’re in my arms / When I leave all I do is harm.” It also works well as a song with a little bounce to it, coming between two darker jam songs to finish out the record.

“It’s Not Mine Anymore” is the album’s other big rocker with Beck back on electric guitar, this time accompanying an ominous vocal from Bruzza. In this context, the band resembles a janglier Drive-By Truckers, with Bruzza doing a pretty convincing take on Mike Cooley’s smokey country vocals. Although Beck’s big guitar solo once again is pure jam band and pretty far away from the Trucker’s gritty southern rock.

More interesting is All for Money’s album-closing title track. Lyrically it’s about succeeding with soulless music and the inevitable decline, and it’s a pretty typical upbeat bluegrass song at first. But the second verse goes off into a lyrical tangent with the lines, “Could be like sending people into outer space / With no real finish to the race.” In retrospect, this couplet seems reverse-engineered to allow Greensky Bluegrass to launch into its spaciest, most far-out jam on the album. The band slows way down and gradually there’s all this odd noise, and high register mandolin plinks and plunks. Bruzza and Bont softly keep some sense of rhythm going in the acoustic guitar and banjo, but the other three players are content just to drift along. Eventually, the song gets back on track with a genuine bridge to pull the band back to earth, and it wraps up as it began. For the record, this is not a great jam, and I would get super-bored of an album full of material like this. But as a one-off, it’s a pretty cool experiment.

As a band that’s been making albums for almost two decades, it’s nice to hear Greensky Bluegrass still working to keep things interesting for themselves. Putting real, extended improvisations on a studio album is a choice that pays off for them, but I still think the best material here is probably among their shorter songs. Similarly, the electric sounds work well as a change of pace, for “Do it Alone” in particular, but it doesn’t feel like the best version of the band right now. Those elements don’t make for a radically different-sounding band, though, and longtime fans will probably be quite pleased with this record.

RATING 7 / 10