For more than 15 years, Greensky Bluegrass has changed the way audiences view bluegrass music by mixing the acoustic stomp of a string band with the energy of rock ’n’ roll.
Add influences of jam, country, blues and psychedelia to their music, and this Kalamazoo, Mich.-based band offers fans an improvisational trip on stage like no other.
Feel free to describe the music as newgrass, jamgrass or progressive bluegrass, but no matter what the name, it’s a mind-blowing sound that is best experienced live and in person.
Fortunately, for local audiences, Greensky Bluegrass returns to headline the 14th Annual Aiken Bluegrass Festival on May 11-12, alongside an incredible lineup that includes bands such as Leftover Salmon, Billy Strings, Larry Keel Experience, The Lil Smokies, Lindsay Lou, Jon Stickley Trio, Grass is Dead and many more.
Greg Burns, the production manager for Greensky Bluegrass and co-director for this year’s Aiken Bluegrass Festival with local organizer Christian Schaumann, said a great deal of planning has gone into taking this year’s festival to the next level.
“With the Aiken Bluegrass Festival, we are very focused on the newgrass and jamgrass vibes and all of the artists that are involved are just family,” Burns said. “It is really a beautiful group of people, and everybody likes hanging out with each other and playing together, and it really shows. The audience knows. The energy of all of the parts comes across on stage very clearly.”
With Greensky Bluegrass’ jam-packed touring schedule, Burns said he was thrilled to be able to bring the band back to the Aiken festival.
“It took a lot of doing to get Greensky back,” Burns said. “The level of performance that they are at now is just constantly growing. They are a top dog right now on that scene, and we are really excited to have them in Aiken this year. In fact, they are finishing up their new album and literally driving down from Asheville after their final day in the studio.”
With the new album fresh on their minds, Burns said he won’t even attempt to predict what songs the band will play when it hits the Aiken stage.
“I doubt we’ll have any bust outs from the studio down in Aiken, but I don’t know,” Burns said. “I can’t tell what the guys are going to do sometimes.”
And between the “super jams” that happen each night and the wide variety of bluegrass bands on stage, Burns said the Aiken festival is always full of surprises.
Such was the case in 2016 when Burns himself took the stage on a dare and began playing.
This spur-of-the-moment act has turned into the band Greg Burns & Friends.
“It was overwhelming. I don’t get to play music that often,” Burns said, laughing. “The first time I took the stage was in Aiken, and it was kind of an experiment. Actually, it was kind of a dare and a slight bet, to a certain degree, but I felt like I pulled it off pretty well.”
Greg Burns & Friends will once again take the stage this year at the Aiken festival, and Burns said he can’t wait.
“I feel like this lineup is going to be awesome,” Burns said. “The whole band is flying into Nashville on Monday to do a rehearsal to get ready for Aiken.”
Audiences familiar with the Aiken Bluegrass Festival will also notice a few improvements to the layout, he said.
“We’ve added a second stage this year called Steve’s Beer Hall,” Burns said. “It’s an ode to Steve Groat, who is the original founder of the Aiken festival. Essentially, we’re lengthening the soundcheck times on the main stage in order to have a second stage and add more artists to the lineup. The beer hall stage will host our super jams as the last performances of each day, following the headlining sets on the main stage.”
Without a doubt, the Aiken Bluegrass Festival has become known for its incredible super jams, Burns said.
“I just recently sent Vince Herman (the founder and front man for Leftover Salmon) all of his options for his super jam, and he is sifting through his artists to finalize a set for that,” Burns said. “That’s going to be super fun because it will be Vince Herman with some of the members of The Lil Smokies, Lindsay Lou, Billy Strings and Jon Stickley Trio. In fact, Jon’s new drummer, Hunter (Deacon) is going to be the main drummer for that with a rotating cast of characters on stage.”
“So, we are trying to create that late-night Steve’s Beer Hall as the jam space so the people who are camping and staying late can come hang out there and really enjoy themselves,” he added.
But the music doesn’t stop there, especially for those camping at the festival.
“There is a third stage that hasn’t really been mentioned,” Burns said. “It’s going to be a smaller stage offering open mics in the mornings and late-night jams at the campground.”
Steve’s Beer Hall will also offer a variety of beers from sponsors New Belgium Brewing and Hi-Wire Brewing, who is a new beer sponsor for 2018.
“They’ve got a whole new slew of beers, and we have a special, sour tapping going on, on Saturday,” Burns said. “So each brewery is going to have a sour beer that is going to be on tap for Saturday only in the beer hall. We’ve also got late-night activities, and we are staffing a food truck 24 hours, so there is overnight food and breakfast available.”
Burns said organizers this year are trying to cover every angle to create a highly enjoyable festival for everyone.
“There will also be a pop-up tent area that we are going to start this year and kind of test the waters on that. And Aiken is very unique because this festival is dog friendly,” Burns said. “The SPCA is involved this year, and they are going to have puppies up for adoption on Saturday from 12 to 4 p.m. And there is actually a dog park that we are setting up this year.”
The goal is to allow the festival to continue to grow, but still maintain its comfortable, laid-back vibe, Burns said.
“With the Aiken Bluegrass Festival, the specialness comes from the scene itself,” Burns said. “The bluegrass fan base is really a fantastic group of people. They really care about each other, and everybody takes care of everybody.”
The Aiken Bluegrass Festival
Friday, May 11, and Saturday, May 12
561 May Royal Drive