As of late, the town of Fort Collins has played host to a plethora of tour openers and tour closers. Tuesday night saw the tour finale for Sam Bush and his never-ending musical travels and without skipping a beat, Wednesday brought the PHAB 4 to Washington’s to begin their three-night Colorado run of collaboration. Consisting of Paul Hoffman and Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass, Todd Herrington of Cris Jacobs Band and Modern Groove Syndicate, and last but certainly not least William Apostol, the surname of the talented Billy Strings, the announcement of this powerhouse conglomeration drew great excitement in the jam grass world as tickets sold out within a few days.
As it is with so many shows at these intimate Colorado general admission venues, where getting to be an arm’s reach from “how” factor musicians on a nightly basis is possible, arriving at the venue at 6 pm, it was no surprise to see roughly 50 patrons already lined up for their chance to be face to face with this talent and catch an earful stage side all night long. With a door time of 8 pm and showtime of 9, the lucky 900 wasted no time in filling the floor from front to back and leaving little walking space in the upstairs balcony.
Showing no signs of a hurry, the house lights went dark at about half-past nine, as the four musical marauders casually strolled out onto the stage. With a simple “Good evening” from Anders Beck, the band wasted no time opening the night up with the Greensky tune “Old Barns”. From the first few measures of the number, it was impressive how tight the group sounded in light of the infrequent collaboration of these gentlemen. This opener also seemed to serve as an opportunity to dial in the sound to the now full house.
At its close, the band brought out the upbeat Strings tune “Away from the Mire”. By mid-song, it was clear that this NOCO stop was going to be jam-filled, as Strings took an early role in driving this version over the top, with the rest happy to jump in to take the ride. Transitioning this number from rootsy bluegrass to edgy psychedelic rocker, the group shined with extensive solos from Beck’s dobro and Strings’ effects-laden acoustic. To further reflect the mutual respect dynamic, this number came filled with teases of Greensky’s “Worried About the Weather”, stimulating the crowd to joyously call out the nods. In total, the tune clocked in at ten minutes and it seemed that the band was just getting warmed up and having a ball doing so.
Next up was “Courage for the Road” and saw speedy fiery exchanges in rounds between Beck, Hoffman, and Strings, while Herrington kept the foundation grounded amidst the swirling shredfest of aural delight. A few minutes into the tune, the music turned toward the minor, and the jam moved from in-your-face playing to the swirling in-your-ear improvisation that showed that these players are as much about the musical heritage as they are about stretching out past the comfort zone into new territory. Looking around the venue, all eyes were either stage ward or closed, and the whole place was getting down. At this point, three songs in and thirty minutes of good living having been had, it was crystal clear that there was so much more in store and this rare musical union was just as much a treat for the band as it was the audience.
Slowing things, a bit, Hoffman stepped to the microphone to deliver his soulful ballad “Nine Days”. With its moving lyrics of trying to find one’s own identity in light of the past and the potential of the future, this number exemplified what a great songwriter Paul is in both scribe and meter.
Having caught their breath, the PHAB 4 returned to the Appalachian sound with the early 20th-century traditional tune “There’s More Pretty Girls Than One”. Hoffman and Strings took alternating deliveries of the lyrics, smiling and grinning at each other all the while, while everyone on stage threw in for the leads in between. At song’s end, Hoffman referenced wanting to play the tune, as in his life there is more than one pretty girl, namely his daughter and her mother, comically chiding the audience that he “knew what they were all thinking”.
“Burn Them” quickly followed and kept the room bouncing and calling out for more and the band was more than happy to oblige. This was followed by a short, tasty and well-delivered rendition of “Merely Avoiding”.
Offering up another opportunity for Billy to take center stage, “Long Forgotten Dream” came out of the gates with its upbeat tempo and drive, reflecting Strings’ ability as songwriter and bandleader, rolling out the quick lyrics and the nimble picking without a misstep.
“What You Need” was the final contribution of the set and the band showed no signs of wear, as Beck and Strings alternated exchanges as the two grinned and laughed at each other.
To open up the second set, a great take on another Strings’ original, “Taking Water”, had the room singing along and showed that this crowd was just as much here for his contribution as they were for their love of the Greensky Bluegrass dynamic.
It was at this point that Anders Beck stepped to the microphone and stated,” We were talking at set break and we all agreed that we are having one helluva good time and we hope you are too”, to which the crowd confirmed the band’s intent and with that the band started up “I’d Probably Kill You”, keeping the feeling of the room light and upbeat. This version, like those of the past where Strings has collaborated with Greensky, included the lyrical change to include Billy in the inferno portion of the tale, making the room the erupt with laughter and applause.
“Can’t Make Time” was well executed and filled with tasty dobro accents from Beck throughout and led into the stomp of “Don’t Lie”, which included a lengthy intro with Strings leading the charge, utilizing the wah wah peddle while Beck employed a delay effect to set the nasty groove on edge. In perfect time, the four-horseman jumped right into the structure and lyric of the tune as if they had been playing together for years. Mid-song, the audience continued to get dosed with the distorted feedback of Strings’ acoustic effects and as the room began to swirl for the umpteenth time of the night, the tune transitioned from Greensky to Apostol the preacher as the music segued into the Strings’ original “Turmoil and Tinfoil” sans the lyrics and was used as launchpad for the band to get deep into jamland, sending the crowd into a frenzy of sweat and exhilaration. In the end, this auditory journey proved to be the longest piece of the night clocking in at 21 minutes of delight.
At this point, Billy took the opportunity to thank Anders and Hoffman for inviting both he and Todd out to play and with a grin ear to ear, Strings took the room on another escapade with his original in “Everything’s the Same”. “Reverend” was up next and although the tune is derived from the Greensky wheelhouse and typically has Hoffman handling the lyrics, Strings took to the microphone and owned the number as though it was one of his own as Hoffman looked on with a smile.
At songs end, Beck took time to introduce his bandmate, pointing and stating, “This is Paul. This is one of the best songwriters I know. He’s a f*cking badass! Don’t you forget it!”. As expected, this proclamation of endearment lit the room up, as everyone cheered on in agreement.
The good times kept rolling with a great take on “Living Over”. With its easily accessible chord progression and quiet and lilting midsection, this is a tune that truly strums the heartstrings when heard. The quiet portion also afforded Herrington to play around on the higher registry, in those sweeter notes of the bass, moving the room to listen a little closer. Although this moment was a bit short-lived, the lifting jam that ensued was warming everyone from the inside out.
Showing again that this night was not about any one person or group, “Bone Digger”, a Cris Jacobs original and one for which Herrington was a contributor in its construct, strutted out on stage with Hoffman taking the lead on vocals and swagger on this tune with an attitude. Herrington also had the opportunity to grab everyone’s attention and displayed his skills at slapping and rolling that bass, owning the room and making it look easy.
“Shadows in the Room” put everyone back in the bluegrass mood and continued to show that this group of guys seemed inexhaustible, as rapid line after rapid line continued to be delivered without any sign of burnout.
Finishing as strongly as they had started, the PHAB 4 delivered on their final take of the set in “Tarpology,” and this one was played with the same amount of creativity and inspiration that tunes played hours earlier had been and incorporated teases of the Greensky favorite “The Four”.
To send the still packed house out on a high note, the band chose “Past My Prime” as the encore, a title that wouldn’t in the least describe any of these great players. This fact was further reinforced in its delivery, as this one was taken as seriously as any other choice of the night, played with care, proficiency, and certainly not as an afterthought.
In the end, 900 fortunate souls got to witness an incredible formation of talent for nearly three hours. This fact of luck would be even further realized later as the remaining two nights of the run had to be postponed due to safety concerns surrounding the coronavirus. With the busy schedules of these individuals with their usual musical commitments, it might be difficult to fathom that rescheduled shows would be possible in the near future. That stated, after seeing these four kindred spirits perform together, connecting and exchanging with genuine joy, it is easy to believe that they will make time, not just for the fans and family who missed out, but also for the opportunity they themselves missed in sharing more great music and time with each other.
As perspective is everything and at this time in our history, Lord knows we could use more, it was great to touch base with Hoffman at the end of the night. As it has become the usual practice for many concert attendees to show up for these events and talk their way through the music, I asked Paul, “When you are up on stage, having the time of your life, pouring out your blood, sweat, and soul, and you look around and hear everyone talking, how does that make you f*cking feel?”, my own ire getting the better of me over the culture of the chomp. Hoffman, being the spirit animal, he is, looked at me with a smile and a wink and said, "When I am up there, I don’t hear people talking. All I hear is people raging,” as he walked off to the rear of the house. At that point, it seemed like a great answer, but in retrospect and in light of recent developments, it speaks volumes about where and how we target our attention. Let us all take a page from the Hoffman Handbook of Life and place our focus on the positivity and the things we have at the moment so that we can ride out the storm and make it to the next gig in life. Take care, everyone!