ASPEN - Since 2004, the acoustic quintet Greensky Bluegrass has released three studio albums. The most recent of those, "Five Interstates," released in 2008, was recorded over five days' time. Making music in a studio, then, is not what occupies the band's time and attention.
"We don't get to do that on a night-to-night basis," Anders Beck, the group's dobro player, confirmed.
Over that period Greensky Bluegrass has made it practically a nightly routine to perform their music on the live stage. While some have been more notable - they won the 2006 Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition; have appeared at the Summercamp festival in Illinois and the Northwest String Summit in Oregon; and opened the massive 2008 Rothbury Festival in their home state of Michigan - those dates have been sandwiched among countless gigs in clubs and theaters.
In 2009, they played approximately 150 shows. Their true identity is forged much more in front on a crowd of fans than it is playing for an audience of engineers and recording devices.
"With a studio album you can work as hard as you can to make it perfect," the 32-year-old Beck. "But in the live environment you jam out and see where you land. That's what people seem to like about us."
Tuesday, listeners get two opportunities to experience the "true" Greensky Bluegrass. The group - banjoist Michael Arlen Bont, guitarist Dave Bruzza, bassist Mike Devol and mandolinist Paul Hoffman, in addition to Beck - performs a late show at Belly Up Aspen. (The reunited Southern hip-hop band Goodie Mob, featuring singer Cee-Lo, plays an early show at 8 p.m.) Also arriving in Aspen are copies of Greensky Bluegrass' "All Access, Volume 1," a full show from this past November at the Riviera Theater in Three Rivers, Mich., captured on two CDs. The album will be available for the first time Tuesday, and the show is billed as a CD release party.
Beck, speaking last week from Glenwood Springs - a stop-over on the way to a gig at Telluride's Sheridan Opera House - said that a live performance is "the most true to our sound." Which does not mean that tonight's performance will sound much like the music on "All Access." Greensky Bluegrass draws from various wells of influences, especially bluegrass and rock, and some shows might have a bit more for the rock fan.
"All Access," for instance, features covers of Pink Floyd's "Time," Bruce Hornsby's "King of the Hill" and the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." Even more than the song selection on a particular night, the shows are dictated by the band's in-the-moment state of mind.
"Live is where you really hear that come across," Beck said. "We can express ourselves musically, how we're feeling. A song can be three minutes or 15 minutes, depending on if we're feeling exploratory on that night. We take risks, and hopefully land on our feet."
Beck said each member of Greensky Bluegrass brings a different element to the group. Bruzza started out as a drummer and still plays in a psychedelic rock band called Airborne or Aquatic. Devol started his musical life as a classical cellist. Bont was a jazz guitarist; Hoffman is a guitarist-turned-mandolinist.
Among the things Beck brings to the band is a background as a mediocre guitar flat-picker. About seven years ago, while living in Durango, the Pennsylvania native realized his skills as a flat-picker were limited. At the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, he happened upon a dobro workshop that featured the instrument's finest players: Jerry Douglas, Sally van Meter and Rob Ickes.
"I heard the dobro and it just made sense," Beck said. "It's like the electric guitar of the acoustic world. It's got that sustain. It spoke to me right off the bat."
Beck went on to play in Broke Mountain - a band whose members now play in the Infamous Stringdusters and the Emmitt-Nershi Band, prompting Beck to call it "a farm team for really successful bands" - and the Wayword Sons, led by Colorado songwriter Benny "Burle" Galloway. He was a late-comer to Greensky Bluegrass, joining up at the end of 2007 - in time to participate in the recording of "Five Interstates."
As attached as he is to live performance, Beck believes that the separate aspect of song craftsmanship is a necessary foundation for worthwhile music-making.
"For me, coming out of a band that had great songwriting, I wanted a band whose songs I like," said Beck, who knew the members of Greensky Bluegrass from the festival circuit. "There are a lot of crappy songs out there. The dobro is such an emotive instrument, it's tough for me to play a song I don't believe in."
All the members of Greensky Bluegrass contribute songs, but Hoffman is pulling away as the most prolific of the bunch. Beck is also impressed with the quality of the mandolinist's tunes. "He's one of those guys where you don't know what the song is about till you've listened to it a bunch of times," Beck said. "Then after you've played it a bunch, you realize it's about your life. That's a hard thing to do."
Mix well-written songs with the improvisatory spirit that can hit the band, and that's when the magic can happen.
"The bluegrass influence, that's the jumping-off point," Beck said. "Then it gets psychedelic sometimes; it gets dark. We get weird sometimes. We explore a lot of different spaces. Not for the sake of exploration, but for the sake of the song."