By now it should not be surprising when Billy Strings and his trio of stringed marksmen slice and dice their way through two sets and over two hours of blistering bluegrass. After all, Strings was just named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year, as well as Guitarist of the Year. Still, it takes brave performers to stand with just four acoustic instruments, and without drums, playing music with this much subtlety and care in a Los Angeles club; albeit a renovated, 1920s Masonic Temple.
Yet, Strings and his three required no such courage. On this Friday night, they walked onstage to an immediate and collective rush of cheers from the sold-out house thirsty for every blazing lick. From the first note to the last, those lucky enough to have crammed into the antique meeting hall stayed locked-in tightly on the baby-faced blond, a day removed from celebrating his 27th birthday.
Strings opened with “Taking Water,” the lead track from his latest, Home, and was resoundingly greeted with whoops of recognition from the packed-in supporters. The ensemble nodded to their host city for the night, dropping in beautiful harmonies on a spirited cover of New Riders of the Purple Sage’s “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy,” and paused only briefly to mention a recent hang with the Bay-Area mandolin dawg David Grisman while whisking through an hour-long first set that barely came up for breath. Strings even slid in a reference to the theme from Sanford and Son amongst one of his extended workouts, running hypnotically intricate patterns on his acoustic with blinding speed, occasionally blending in oscillating rises and falls and overdriven tone.
He gave equal space to his compatriots, showcasing Billy Failing on banjo (and lead vocals), Royal Masat on upright bass, and Jarrod Walker on mandolin. Despite starting the second half alone, presenting “Love Like Me” as a solo effort, he brought Failing on for a duet of the two Billys and their banjos. The hardwood floor became the kick-drum as capacity crowd stomped out the beat, with Strings and Failing in fantastical fretboard flight.
With the full ensemble, the quartet took on a rendition of “Me and My Uncle,” popularized by the Grateful Dead, and noticeably popular with this audience populated with more than a few ‘heads.’ Sprinting to the finish, Strings reworked The Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” into an up-tempo romp, crystalline in its execution of both vocal and string harmony. They stretched way out into the cosmos on the set-closing “Ride Me High,” then returned to gather around a single mic for the finale; choosing “Freedom,” also Home’s final cut.
It was an undoubtable triumph, and a step forward for Strings in Los Angeles, filling the historic second-floor space with an attentive audience responding to his band’s every move. It was encouraging, as well, to see the music delivered with such uninhibited enthusiasm; at one point the youthful guitarist swirled his long locks as wildly as any heavy metal god. Clearly, it’s good to be 27 and Billy Strings.