Greensky Bluegrass/PlayStation Theater/January 28, 2017
Michael Arlen Bont (banjo), Dave Bruzza (guitar), and Paul Hoffman (mandolin) began learning to play bluegrass together in 2000 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, playing in Bont’s basement and also at parties and open mics. Greensky Bluegrass grew into a quintet and by 2005, the band was touring nationally. Greensky Bluegrass won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition in 2006, earning the band a spot on the main stage of the 2007 festival and augmenting the band’s notoriety with each passing festival. Greensky Bluegrass presently consists of Bont, Bruzza, Hoffman, Michael Devol on upright bass and Anders Beck on resonator guitar. The band’s sixth and most recent album, Shouted, Written Down & Quoted, was released on September 23, 2016.
With each tour, Greensky Bluegrass’ New York City audience has doubled in size. Starting at the apartment-sized Sullivan Hall, the group went on to headline Irving Plaza on its previous tour, and now headlined the PlayStation Theater, unheard of for a bluegrass band in New York. The performance highlighted why this was possible; Greensky Bluegrass flat-picked like a traditional bluegrass band but performed with the dynamics and the spirit of a rock band. Performing two sets, the band started with a more traditional set of arrangements and ended deep in swirling Grateful Dead-style psychedelia before the night was over. Energetic songs glided into one another often, held together by a common mission to pick strings masterfully to a driving yet drum-less stomp. On this night, the band rendered semi-acoustic versions of Traffic’s “Light Up or Leave Me Alone,” the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” the Stanley Brothers’ “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” and J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight,” all surrounded by original songs and substantial string-band improvisation. This was jam-grass at its finest.
Mondo Cozmo/Mercury Lounge/January 31, 2017
Joshua Ostrander began playing music in the group Ty Cobb in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He formed the alt-rock Radiohead-sounding band Laguardia in 2000, also based in Philadelphia, and released an album. His next band, an indie rock trio called Eastern Conference Champions (also known as ECC), toured and recorded from 2005 to 2015, and was the band that relocated him to Los Angeles, California, his present base. Ostrander launched a solo career under the name Mondo Cozmo in 2016, creating his name from the title of John Waters’ film Mondo Trasho and his dog’s name, Cozmo. “Shine” hit #1 on Billboard‘s Adult Alternative Songs chart in January 2017, but Mondo Cozmo has not yet released an album.
Backed at the Mercury Lounge by the Philadelphia-based group Illinois, Cozmo performed a half hour of chorus-heavy folk-rock songs. Cozmo sang with the earthiness of an early Bob Dylan, yet sometimes rocked the walls like he was from Asbury Park. Songs built to a crescendo with choruses so repetitive that it would be hard not to know the title of the song by the time he was done. This was particularly emphasized with his last song, a seven-minute version of “Shine,” on which he brought out a six-member choir to chant “let ’em get high; let ’em get stoned; everything will be alright if you let it go” for close to five of those seven minutes. The songs were epic in their performance, and promise to gain him a swift following. One can only hope that when he returns he will play more than six songs.
Andrew Bird/Madison Square Garden/February 2, 2017
Violinist Andrew Bird was trained in the Suzuki method from the age of four in Chicago, Illinois. Growing up, he was surrounded by classical music and learned to play many pieces by ear. As a child, he became interested in bluegrass, Irish tunes and English and Scottish folk music and, as a teen, he sought exposure to gypsy music as well as American country blues and pre-war jazz. Swing, calypso, and American folk were later influences. Shortly after graduating from university with a bachelor’s degree in violin performance in 1996, Bird joined the band Squirrel Nut Zippers, appearing on three of the band’s albums between 1996 and 1998. He then formed Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, recording three albums from 1998 to 2001, while also moonlighting in the jazz group Kevin O’Donnell’s Quality Six. Bird launched a solo career by chance in 2002, when his band members were unable to get to a concert. Bird’s 10th and most recent solo album, Are You Serious, was released on April 1, 2016. Bird is presently based in Los Angeles, California.
Opening for The Lumineers at Madison Square Garden, Andrew Bird sang, played violin and guitar, and whistled—a lot. Accompanied by his band (guitarist Steve Elliot, bassist Alan Hampton, drummer Kevin O’Donnell), Bird’s largely acoustic-led set hinted at folk while the changing rhythms suggested classical and jazz, but Bird’s music was summarily none of the above. Sounding similar to Sufjan Stevens at times, much of Bird’s music was an eclectic collection of soundscapes, much of which sounded like soundtracks for invisible visuals. Seemingly more appropriate for a conservatory rather than a sports arena, the roots elements and the whistling in Bird’s set nonetheless captured the attention of The Lumineers fans.
The Lumineers/Madison Square Garden/February 2, 2017
Guitarist Wesley Schultz’s best friend died of a drug overdose in 2002. Engaging in cathartic therapy, Schultz and his friend’s brother, drummer Jeremiah Fraites, began playing music together in their home base of Ramsey, New Jersey. By 2005, they performed in New York City clubs under the names Free Beer, 6Cheek, and Wesley Jeremiah. They came upon a final name while in Jersey City, New Jersey, when the concert promoter erroneously announced the band as The Lumineers. Lack of local success, however, swayed Schultz and Fraites in 2010 to relocate to Denver, Colorado. There, they placed a classified ad for a cellist, and the first person to respond was Neyla Pekarek, a classically-trained Denver native who was fresh out of college and was thinking about becoming a teacher. The trio began playing at open mics, as Pekarek helped soften the rough east coast edges of Schultz and Fraites while expanding her skills to mandolin and piano. The band’s first single, “Ho Hey,” sold over two million copies in 2003 and led to a million-selling debut album. The Lumineers’ second studio album, Cleopatra, was released on April 8, 2016.
Headlining the first of two consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden, The Lumineers expanded to a quintet, with Stelth Ulvang on piano, accordion, mandolin, guitar, percussion, keyboards and backing vocals, and Byron Isaacs on bass, guitar, and backing vocals. Early in the show, Schultz reminded the audience that he and Fraites grew up only 12 miles away from the venue. “I saw one of my first concerts here, so tonight is a really special night for us,” said Schultz. The Lumineers performed 19 songs over approximately an hour and a half, and attempted to bring a down-home ambiance to the arena with simple folk-styled music, a four-song performance on a small stage in the center of the venue and, during “Ophelia,” Schultz walking briskly through the floor audience and into the mezzanine. The beauty of the music was its simplicity, even with musicians frequently changing instruments. Especially when the quintet performed on the mini-stage, the performance was hinged on uncluttered acoustic rock with rustic Americana roots and stomp-and-clap pop arrangements. Schultz performed “Long Way from Home” solo on a hollow body guitar at the apron of the main stage, emphasizing the soulfulness of his front-porch style of songwriting. On many other songs, however, the band drove with rock power. The Lumineers perfectly did everything to make heart-on-the-sleeve music fill a big room.