The Michigan-bred band Greensky Bluegrass has made a career out of constantly evolving and delivering the unexpected. Contrary to what the group's name might suggest, they are not purely a bluegrass band, but an amalgamation of each member's tastes and talents, resulting in an experiential rock-folk-bluegrass sound — or whatever the listener wants them to be. Playing almost 200 shows a year, the band's sound appropriately encapsulates the weariness and freedom that comes with a nomadic lifestyle. On Feb. 9 and 10, the ensemble will play back-to-back shows at the Fillmore, performing songs from its prolific catalogue — and maybe a few written minutes before the show.
The band's improvisational nature is part of what makes their live shows so captivating. Lead singer and mandolin player Paul Hoffman explains that on any given night, the crowd could hear a song the band has never played live or recorded before. "We're trying to make each show special," he says. "If we get a creative idea an hour before a show, then we'll pursue it and take a chance."
This unique experience is not lost on Greensky Bluegrass fans, many of whom follow the band from state to state in hopes of a purely new and exclusive performance. The fraternity of fans refer to themselves as "Campers," pretty much the bluegrass version of "Deadheads." Over the years, the Campers have formed a close-knit community that serves as a home away from home, not only for the die-hard fans, but for Greensky Bluegrass.
"Every show is home in a way, now that these fans of ours travel and see us everywhere," says Hoffman. "That kind of feeling and sentiment is re-created every night and may be part of what makes this band special for those people too."
Although they've been embraced by crowds around the country, Hoffman says the band feels a special connection to Michigan, where they first formed 18 years ago. After a chance meeting at an open mic night in Kalamazoo, Michael Arlen Bont (banjo), Dave Bruzza (guitar), and Paul Hoffman (mandolin) started playing together instantly, spending years as a staple in the Kalamazoo music scene. Soon after, the band picked up Mike Devol (upright bass) and Anders Beck (dobro), and it wasn't long before they were touring and garnering national attention. As it turns out, their home state was somewhat of a novelty in the bluegrass world.
"It made us kind of unique," says Hoffman. "We were that bluegrass band from Michigan ... I think it was kind of good for us to be an anomaly, or an abnormality, in a different place."
Ironically enough, the "bluegrass" element of the band's name has been a point of contention over the years. Though its instrumentation lines up with that of a typical bluegrass group, Greensky Bluegrass has developed their own style that can sometimes lean more into classic rock or even metal during performances. But Hoffman says the argument of "bluegrass or not" is null at this point.
"We used to worry that the bluegrass right wing would come to a show and be offended if we were doing some heavy metal things and be like, 'What the hell is this?'" Hoffman says. "But I never really got the sense that that happened a lot. I would sort of be shocked now if people are coming into our show expecting one thing and objecting to seeing something different."
After 18 years, six studio albums, and headlining gigs at legendary venues like the Ryman and Red Rocks, Hoffman says Greensky Bluegrass stays grounded and inspired through the band members' mutual love for the music.
"We have fun doing it," he says. "We like to challenge ourselves and learn new stuff and try new things and push boundaries and take a lot of risks. We don't always succeed, and that makes us want to try more."
Greensky Bluegrass performs Friday, Feb. 9 and Saturday, Feb. 10 at the Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-961-5451; thefillmoredetroit.com; Doors at 7 p.m.; Tickets start at $29.50; a limited quantity of two-day tickets are available for $50.