A Few Minutes with… Michael Bont of Greensky Bluegrass
Greensky Bluegrass will add to its deep catalog of recorded music with Stress Dreams, the quintet’s eighth studio offering, due out on January 21st. But first, they kick off their Winter Tour in Albany at the Palace Theatre on Thursday, January 20th.
We had a chance to sit down and chat with the band’s banjo player Michael Bont about the upcoming tour and the new album.
Jim Gilbert: Welcome Mike, thanks for taking some time out of your schedule to chat. Greensky Bluegrass has been playing Albany pretty much since the beginning. Are there any memories of the Capital Region that stand out?
Mike Bont: The first time we came to The Egg, we got off our tour bus and ended up in the basement of this bunker. Then you have to find your way through this weird complex.
JG: I hear you, I’ve always wanted to play hide and seek in that building (under the Plaza).
Oh, man, that’d be fun. And then and then you know, that venue is so cool. And, we’ve got a lot of fans from that region and I’ve really always enjoyed playing shows there.
JG: And this will be your second time going to be at the Palace Theatre.
MB: Yeah, I know. This is our second time for sure and we are opening our tour there. I actually feel like the last time we opened our winter tour before COVID was actually at the Palace Theatre, too.
JG: That sounds right. What would inspire you to play the Northeast in the wintertime?
MB: Being from the Midwest and specifically Michigan, I know that in my heart in the wintertime you want to be inside but, I had the opportunity to get out of the house and go do something that doesn’t involve freezing.
JG: GSBG has been around for a long time, over 20 years. What got you into bluegrass?
MB: Back in the mid to late 90s, I was a big Deadhead and started following Phish around. Then at some point, I stumbled upon some old recordings and realized that Jerry played the banjo. And I thought that was really cool. And just decided to pick it up. So, for my 21st birthday, my mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday and just thought that she would just give me 20 bucks in a card like normal, but I said “get me a banjo” half-jokingly. And she actually bought me a banjo and I just started playing it. And luckily, I was living in Kalamazoo and there was this Thursday night bluegrass band that would play at a local brewery. I would go and the banjo player in that band was a really, really great picker. I just fell in love with the sound of the banjo and then ironically enough 20 something years down the line. He is actually the guy that builds my banjos for me nowadays. He is still a great picker and we like hanging out, his name is Rock Bartley.
JG: How awesome is that?
MB: It was that and we would go to a music festival called Wheatland, which is like a big bluegrass festival here in Michigan. It’s about 45 years old. It was one of those festivals where you could get into picking circles where you’d want to learn a song and people would give you the time to teach you a song when you’re young. The next thing you knew, it would be six o’clock in the morning and you’re dragging your instrument back to your tent. It’s that type of learning process and having that community around you when you’re learning something is really valuable to me.
JG: If you could put together a picking circle with your top banjo players living or past who would be in that circle.
MB: You’d have to say, Earl Scruggs. J.D. Crowe, Ralph Stanley, as far the old school goes. Then you have Ben Eldridge, Tony Trischka, and obviously Jerry (Garcia) and Bela Fleck. I love guys like Chris Pandolfi and Andy Thorn. All those guys would be a hell of a circle. I’d probably be the worst player in that whole circle.
JG: I don’t know about that. Greensky Bluegrass has collaborated with some incredible bands and musicians over the years. Is there one that stands out?
MB: Holly Bowling. Holly is one of my favorite musicians and our collaborations are so much fun. She did a big fall tour with us last year and she played this every night for like our whole second set and we made some really great music. I always loved playing with Lyle Brewer, he’s one of my favorite guitar players that are around right now. And again, a good friend. Those are a couple of my favorites.
JG: Are there any precautions you are taking with touring during COVID
MB: We were basically locking our crew and band down to these basically empty backstages with no friends and family. We will stay masked up pretty much all day except for the show and on the bus. And if anybody is feeling symptoms let somebody know and get tested, but we’re setting out on some unknown factors, and we’ve been doing very well so far. Basically at home, I don’t really see anybody except my wife and my cats, so we’re trying to stay as safe as we possibly can.
JG: You guys are playing with the Infamous Stringdusters on this tour, any thoughts?
MB: They’re super great. They’re all great, great friends of ours and great musicians. We’re excited to be finally doing this tour with them. I’d like to hang out with those guys every night, but we’re still trying to get actually stay separate as much as we possibly can from both bands just to keep everyone as safe as possible — band and crew
JG: A lot of bands have taken advantage of the downtime and created incredible music in the last couple of years, including GSBG.
MB: Yeah, I think “Stress Dreams” is our best album. The fact that we had the time to be able to put a lot of the songs under the microscope, the result was cool. I’m really excited for everybody to hear it.
JG: And I bet it sounds great live.
MB: Oh yeah, we’ve already played five of six songs live and I’ve listened to him back and it sounds just like the album.
JG: I appreciate your time. Good luck with the tour.
MB: Thanks, I’m looking forward to getting out of the house.
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