On Wednesday, January 18, 2023, Greensky Bluegrass returns to the Garden State to perform at the historic Count Basie Center for the Performing Arts in Red Bank, NJ. In anticipation of this show, I was able to talk with Mike Bont, banjo player for Greensky Bluegrass, about the stellar year the band had in 2022 and his anticipation for what lies ahead in 2023.
CP: Thank you Mike for taking the time to speak with me today. I was wondering how your holidays were, both personally, but also for Greensky?
Mike Bont: My holidays were great; it was nice to able to spend some time with family and I took time out from work memorizing a Bach piece. I play classical guitar on the side, it’s just something fun and actually today I just finished memorizing that piece I have been working on for a few months now so that’s pretty exciting. New Year's in Atlanta, GA was great. The guys from Chris Jacobs Band are good friends of ours and it was nice to play a set of original music, but also do some fun covers in there and I always love the challenge of learning new music, that’s for sure.
CP: Speaking of New Year's, I know that in 2022 and for the history of the band, Greensky has really been about collaborations, Chris Jacobs and Dusty Simmons sat in for the 3rd set on New Year's, so I’m curious about that process, how these collaborations come about? Is it a night of decision, do you have rehearsals for that? Especially with Dusty on the drums, which is not a part of traditional bluegrass, can you tell me what that process is like?
Mike Bont: Starts out with a lot of back and forward, texting, coming up with song ideas. Dusty actually took a couple of our studio recordings and through a recording rig, recorded tracks of him playing drums along with the tracks, which I thought was really really cool. Then it’s just about personal rehearsal and a few of the songs have different versions. For example, “Midnight Train to Georgia”, has the Gladys Knight & the Pips’ version, which is what we used, but there’s lots of other versions too, so coming to a conscious on what version to play and also because of the way the internet is now of days, coming to conscious of the proper cord progression because, believe it or not, you can find a gazillion different progressions for the exact same song and not deciding which is correct, or correct to you I guess. Also, stuff like choosing the key or keys to play the songs in, because sometimes, in respect to peoples’ vocal ranges, sometimes you have the key the song is in does really benefit the vocalist, so having to spend some time in transposing to different keys. It was really fun, we like playing with those guys. Chris and Dusty are both amazing musicians in their own right.
CP: How long before New Year's were you listening to the recordings with the drums and making that adjustment?
Mike Bont: A couple of weeks, it was a couple of weeks, we put some time into it. We started texting, I want to say upwards to a couple of months before the show, we started throwing ideas around. By the time we got to showtime it was pretty thought out and actually the day of we spent probably five hours rehearsing before we played a three-set show (laughs).
CP: (Laughing) That’s a long day!
Mike Bont: (Laughing) It was a long day, but it’s also fun, rehearsing things, like coming together and rehearsing things and having it all come together and then being able to play it live hours later. It was a testament just to musicianship between all of us, it’s great, it was really fun.
CP: Is that the process for all the collaborations in 2022?
Mike Bont: Most times involve getting together the day of or a few hours before the show and just running through it a couple times. A lot of the musicians that we collaborate with know a lot of our music and sometimes they request songs like, hey I want to play this Greensky song cause I really like it.
CP: What are some of the other collaboration highlights in 2022?
Mike Bont: We did a lot of sets with Holly Bowling. She is probably one of my favorite musicians and she’s a great friend of ours. Ironically enough, we grew up in the same small lake town in Michigan, which is kind of weird. She is definitely, certainly a highlight we did a bunch of shows with her and the spaces she finds in our music without overpowering it is always, is always amazing and then she takes a solo and just rips it (laughs).
CP: The last time Greensky played in New Jersey was in August 2022 in Seaside Heights, touring with the Wood Brothers. A lot of times you have guests opening and they are included in your show. Can you talk about that extended collaboration?
Mike Bont: We kind of just through them into the mix, they’re all about playing with us, we’re like hey you guys want to come play with us like every night, play a few songs and we got a few songs put together. Obviously, Oliver (Wood) is a great guitarist and singer and he kinda like has that Shaman vibe. Chris Wood is like a legend. Among bass players he is one of the best, if not the best around right now and they’re just really cool guys. We had a lot of fun on that whole tour and became friends because of it.
CP: Coming up in Red Bank, NJ, you have Neighbor opening, are you talking to them before about collaborating?
Mike Bont: Nothing really, but Lyle Brewer, in my head, is one of the finest, if not the finest guitar players out there right now. He amazes me, his knowledge of techniques, style is just unreal. Looking forward, and their band is great, I’m looking forward to hopefully watching some of their set as well.
CP: Have there been any other highlights separate from the collaborations in 2022?
Mike Bont: Obliviously Red Rocks, it is always a keystone in the year, feel very lucky to be able to play that venue on the regular (laughs). Strings and Sol is always a great one, in Mexico, it’s like a big beach party, that’s always a highlight. Kinda like a little work-cation before the holidays.
CP: How were the water slides, did you ride the waterslides?
Mike Bont: (laughs) Yes, somethings you are just never too old for.
CP: With 2023 here, is there anything you are looking forward to?
Mike Bont: Looking forward to a fun winter tour, recently traditionally we do a bunch of shows on the east coast during winter, and it is always fun seeing friends and fans and family. Looking forward to, we’re play in Byron Bay, Australia for Byron Bay Blues Fest this April, really looking forward to that. Never been to Australia so I’m pretty excited to go check that place out. Also, we’re doing this Camp Greensky Iceland thing in June, I’m super excited to go to Iceland. Just the pictures of the place look amazing.
CP: Have you been to Iceland before?
Mike Bont: I’ve never been there, but it’s like one of those things you see on your Apple TV, like the screen savers come up of the world and ohh that place is beautiful. As of recently, I find a lot of them are of Iceland. Interesting, maybe it’s listening to me here, maybe it’s just a beautiful place. It’s also over the summer solstice so it’s one of the few places in the world where the sun doesn’t really set, so I’m interested in that.
CP: Are you going to miss the traditional Camp Greensky?
Mike Bont: Will be missing the hometown show, but doesn’t mean we won’t be back there, just taking a little field trip this year (laughs).
CP: What does the return to New Jersey this month mean for you and Greensky?
Mike Bont: I always love the fans on the east coast. I love our whole winter tour that we always do in that particular spot. I love that people love to go out in the winter, weather aside. Looking forward to playing some great shows and the bands we’re playing with. Just excited to get back out, get this year going on a good foot.
CP: Have you ever play Count Basie before?
Mike Bont: I never have, but I hear it’s pretty legendary. I’m looking forward to it for sure!
CP: For anyone who has never heard Greensky Bluegrass what would you tell them about the band?
Mike Bont: Even though we have the word bluegrass in our name doesn’t mean that we’re a traditional bluegrass band. We like to bend genres with our music and do our own thing. We write really really great songs; we have a bunch of good songwriters in the band. We kinda play bluegrass the weird way (laughs).
CP: Is songwriting a collaborative process?
Mike Bont: It starts out somebody will write the song and has a general idea of how they want the song to go. Usually, it gets presented in front of the band, for the band and it get what I call “Greensky’d”, we all like throw if our own ideas. The basis of the song is generally there by the time it gets to the rest of us, it starts as an individual process, but then it gets a band kind of recipe draw in and everyone has their general ideas, the goal is not making it better, but to add to it.
CP: Do you consider yourself a songwriter in Greensky Bluegrass?
Mike Bont: I have a hard time writing songs (laughs) I’m very good at coming up with melodies on the banjo and thinking outside the normal role of what the banjo usually does in a bluegrass band. A lot of times we don’t just play straight bluegrass we have all these tempos and beats that we try to emulate without a drummer, so a lot of the times the banjo acts as like a snare drum or sometime like that so it’s not just like playing a banjo part. Kind of helps moving, add to whatever texture we’re trying to create.
CP: Speaking of texture, Greensky has a great light show, can you talk about the collaboration the band has with Andrew Lincoln?
Mike Bont: Lincoln is great, he approached the band years ago, just wanted to help out. He actually started out selling merch for us and we had a lighting director with us at the time and he actually hurt himself on tour, had to fly home from tour and we had the lights with us. Lincoln expressed interest in learning how to run lights, actually tried to do lights for that tour and went to work with a couple of LDs he knew to learn more about the process and everything. His kind of has become his own animal. I agree, his light is amazing, he is one of kind. I feel blessed to have him part of our unit. It’s great to have a lighting director that really really understands the band, definitely adds to the show.
CP: Anything else to add about Red Bank?
Mike Bont: Looking forward to seeing people and if you’ve never heard of us, you’re going to like our music and you should check us out on the internet channel if you are unsure. It’s funny because a lot of people are like they don’t realize they like our music till they’re like because that we’re bluegrass fans they thought we were a bluegrass band and then they listen to our songs, and I mean you guys are so much more than just that (laughs)! We write songs that really move people and love people and we tend to create this community, this whole communal vibe that brings people together. It really means a lot to help culminate this gathering of the tribe, so to speak. A lot of fun and great party, you’re probably going to make friends.
More information about Greensky Bluegrass is available at https://greenskybluegrass.com and ticket information for their upcoming winter tour including the January 18, 2023 Count Basie Red Bank, NJ show is available here- https://greenskybluegrass.com/tour/
PHOTOS BY CHRIS PAUL