(By: Rachel Bailey)
Bluegrass was only the beginning.
Athens, Georgia’s Grassland String Band began their journey at a bluegrass jam, when lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Lesousky wowed vocalist and banjo player Jody Daniels with his talent. The two of them decided to make music together, and GSB was born. A few years later, they’ve grown into a multi-generational six-piece band (spanning in age from 26 to 61) that boasts members with master’s degrees in classical organ and guitar; a jazz-influenced, improvisational live performance style; and a lead singer who’d sound as at home fronting a soul band as he does backed by a fiddle.
You would never have put together a band like this using a formula.
In the months after their meeting, Daniels and Lesousky rounded out their line-up to include Nathan Elder on bass, Todd Ferguson on drums, fiddler Adam Poulin, and classical guitarist Kevin Fleming. With that growing base of musical knowledge, GSB’s sound expanded to touch on Americana, jazz, pop and folk — a hybrid the group has taken to calling Amerigrass.
Before the Feast, GSB’s debut album released in the summer of 2014, presents a survey of what Amerigrass has to offer. Opener “Clara” is all boisterous vocal interplay and fine string-pickin’, a glimpse into the group’s palpable chemistry and virtuosic musicianship. A few tracks later, Lesousky’s impressive pipes take center stage on the love song, “Neil Young” as the backing band mellows into a supporting role that could almost be called stripped-down by comparison if it wasn’t so rich with sound. In live performances the band has already started incorporating new material from a forthcoming follow-up, like “Boom Boom,” in which Daniels takes center stage. Clearly having one hell of a good time, he leads the band through a soulful number about the need “to kick down the door, children!” over Fleming’s bluesy, electric guitar.
At live shows, all these elements are turned up to eleven. This is not a set you’ll see fans chatting through. The crowd yells “woo”s of encouragement. They slap their thighs. They sing along. They dance. The band’s chemistry, so apparent on record, positively fills the room as they grin their way through the set, extending some of their tracks into improvised jams. Does it feel a little like bluegrass? Sure. But it’s something more, something modern and amorphous. If this is Amerigrass, I think I like it.