Billy Strings and his band played music for 45 straight minutes before silence briefly filled the air at Legend Valley at Concert Venue and Campground.
But this wasn’t the end of the first set. This was simply the wrapping of an adventurous, jam-filled series of segues that found guitarist Strings – with banjoist Billy Failing, mandolinist Jarrod Walker and double bassist Royal Masat – using the explosive instrumental “Pyramid Country” and associated reprises as vehicles to get to and through the original “Fire on My Tongue,” the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” and the Grateful Dead’s “Wharf Rat.”
Sound quality was an issue – instruments fading and re-emerging as the music struggled to fill the expansive air – but was essentially dialed in by the mid-way point of the two-hour, 40-minute performance.
“Hello, everybody,” Strings said as “Rat” concluded and night began to fall on the rural field in Thornville, Ohio, formerly known as Buckeye Lake Music Center.
The set – one of two 80-minute jobs the quartet served up June 25 for the sold-out, socially distanced-in-pods audience – still had a ways to go. And though Strings and company would continue to play under a dazzling display of lights and the guitarist would still sometimes filter his acoustic instrument through an envelope that made him sound like Dickey Betts, the show moved away from rock ‘n’ roll toward ’grass – and not the kind the band said they enjoyed while fishing for bass in the venue’s stocked pond, pre-show.
Strings heralded the shift with his signature, “Dust in a Baggie,” on which the band – with the ensemble groupthink of a standalone act, rather than a backing trio – added traditional bluegrass harmonies to genre-expanding musical arrangements. The Dillards’ “Tom Dooley” and the traditional “Reuben’s Train” – with Strings’ effects-laden guitar mimicking a lonesome whistle – reinforced the turning of the corner.
The second half began with another instrumental – “Libby Phillips Rag” – on which the quartet paired bluegrass pickin’ with jamband sensibility and the performance brought such joy to Strings he laughed out loud while singing the traditional “Will You Be Loving Another Man” that roared out of the backside opener.
A couple of songs later – as a nearly full, waning moon emerged from low-hanging clouds – Strings sat on a stool for solo-acoustic versions of “House Carpenter” and “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” which included a birthday shout to the guitarist’s dad alongside some lightning-fast runs on the fretboard.
Strings was moved to tears – “fuck, don’t cry,” he said as he wiped his eyes – when the band re-emerged and he talked about the late Yonder Mountain String Band founder Jeff Austin, who died two years earlier. Seeking to dull his raw emotions, he performed Austin’s “Run Down” and YMSB’s “Sorrow is a Highway” with enough fire to burn off the mental keloids.
More nods to the Dead’s – who made their debut in the venue 33 years earlier to the day – repertoire followed with encore renditions of “Jack-a-Roe” and “Mama Tried.”
Thus wrapped a nod to the traditional with a heavy-lidded stare to where bluegrass is headed. Strings and company seem just the guides to follow on the next leg of the fabled long, strange trip.