The sound of Anders Beck’s dobro cuts through the crisp October air, animating as it were, the twenty-five-hundred-plus friends gathered here to witness this. Asheville, NC in the fall is, by any measure, a lovely place to be. Gathered down on the banks of the French Broad river, at The Salvage Station, a venue that manages to be somehow both expansive and inclusive, I can’t think of any place I would rather be.
Or any band I would rather be listening to. Greensky Bluegrass just does it for me. Their sound is unparalleled on the scene today, and that’s not because there aren’t a bunch of other bands trying to imitate it. It’s because it is something they themselves have created.
Fruition warms up the crowd with a great set, the loudest cheers coming when they announce that they will be playing a surprise show inside when GSBG is done. For twenty bucks a head this crowd is going to get two sets from Greensky and three sets from Fruition, including two indoor club sets. What a freaking bargain.
When Fruition is finished, the crowd is really showing up. GSBG hasn’t played a single note, and there must be 2000 people here already. The anticipation is killing everyone. Cigarettes are already running low.
Then it’s time. No real intro, no segue. Just the boys walking out and launching into Reverend. As per usual, once they start playing, they never look back. The first set is heavy and driving and, early on, pretty grassy. They really begin to stretch their legs with a twelve-minute Run or Die about halfway through the set, then change the dynamics to play Room Without a Roof.
They finish it off with an absolutely blazing eleven-minute jam-fest of Living Over, stepping away from a crowd full of smiles to take a short break. I stand there for a minute and marvel at the job their lighting tech does. It’s one thing to plan lighting for a run of shows with similar set lists, but his ability to keep up with their expansive catalog and explosive improvisation is nearly beyond belief.
I’ve got friends in the crowd who don’t do bluegrass but managed to find their way here. I locate them and ask what they think. They don’t even have words.
It’s hard to imagine the level of psychedelia and the rawness that GSBG brings without seeing them live. Seeing it live although doesn’t make it any easier to describe. I head down to the river for a smoke and am again impressed by the venue. There is probably space here for 6000, but they cap it much lower than that to make the experience comfortable for everyone.
There are dark corners, lit up canopies, three or four bars, and tons of other amenities. If you want to stand by yourself in the shadows, there is a place for that. If you want to kick a soccer ball in the very back, there is room for that too. It’s almost like a small festival ground in itself and, having a 500 plus capacity stage inside gives them the opportunity to throw these 8+ hour ragers.
As the second set begins, I can’t wait to see what the band has in store for us. It turns out no one is going to be disappointed. They roll in with Daemons back to back with a scorching eleven-minute Worried About the Weather.
Then they start getting weird. They move through a few darker songs including In Control and then really start to explore the space on Can’t Stop Now. They are toying with us, confident in their abilities to take us to the darkest places imaginable and bring us all back right before we cross the edge. They take it as far as they can, turning up the distortion and yelling into the microphones at the beginning of a twenty-one-minute version of Broke Mountain.
I can see it on the looks of the faces of those around me. In their body language. More than one hand is clutched to a chest, more than one couple squeezing each other. It is hectic and dissonant, and just when the audience doesn’t know if we can take any more, they turn the corner into a two-minute tease of The Wheel. There is a collective sigh, the audience grateful for the journey we have just been taken on. Grateful to have these guides tonight.
GSBG finishes off the set with Bring Out Your Dead and covers Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic as an encore. Then it’s time for more Fruition.
I think about my conversation with GSBG banjo player Mike Bont from the week before and wonder if the guys will be out mingling later. One of the ways this band has built such a rabid following is by treating their fans like friends, not patrons.
“We like hanging out with people and we like the people that happen to be our fans,” he had told me. “They have seen us grow throughout the years and some of them have become our good friends. The quality of people that are our fans is amazing. I feel lucky to have them be a part of it.”
And then there they are, just a couple of songs in, buying beer at the bar in the back of the venue. No longer rock stars under the lights they are now just fans of music, listening and mingling with the people that they have chosen to make their family.
Caleb Calhoun studied writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and music at a plethora of clubs and bars across the southeast. He is the host of Soundcheck Radio (Thursday’s 3-5 on 103.7 WPVM), a contributor to Grateful Web, and the publisher of Rosman City Blues. He currently lives on South Slope with his woodland mermaid, Dr. Gonzo. You can reach him at email@example.com and/or Facebook.com/GonzoNC