photo by Steve Rood
And the moral of this story is: Never let a technicality delay a great party.
Yes, Billy, of Billy Strings, was still living his 29th year when he walked onto the stage of The Wiltern on Sunday, October 2. And, yes, his trusted mandolin player, Jarrod Walker, was mistaken when he said (jokingly) their “daredevil” guitar player was turning 35 the next day; Billy, of course, would turn 30 on October 3. None of those particulars mattered all that much anyway to the mass of humanity crammed into the sold-out mid-city theater. They were ready to revel; most everyone sporting their complimentary yellow trucker hat adorned in purple block letters (a nice wink to the colors of the L.A. Lakers) with a message: HAPPY BIRTHDAY BILLY!
Strings took a look at the sea of meshed polyester caps, toked on a celebratory smoke, and declared, “Let’s have a good time tonight.”
And they did.
For the uninitiated, Billy Strings is both band name and Billy, himself. It’s a clarification worth noting. This is anything but a solo effort. Walker, bassist Royal Masat, banjo player Billy Failing, fiddle player Alex Hargreaves, and Strings on guitar are interconnected in sound and fury like few others, providing considerable room within their sonic conversations for each to have his say; a seriously ground-shaking ensemble equally assembled.
Stoking two tenacious sets, basted in nearly immaculate musicianship, Billy Strings’ five were ablaze in a conflagration of notes- with solos so evenly distributed amongst them even the live video on the stage-long screen above had trouble, at times, keeping up. There were scores of lock-tight, three-part vocal harmonies. And selectively spacey explorations reaching the outer bounds of bluegrass.
There was an early nod to their locale as Strings dusted off New Riders of the Purple Sage’s subversive classic, “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy,” as one of the dozen-and-a-half covers throughout the night. Really, though, it was more encouraging that the capacity crowd’s enthusiasm approached its highest peak when the group launched into their originals, “Away From the Mire,” or “Hide and Seek,” from Home and 2021’s Renewal, respectively. The band received the show’s biggest ovation from another of their own- after a widened “Turmoil and Tinfoil;” with an improvisational excursion affirming Strings as one of the finer guitar players in the universe right now.
Strings thanked his party guests, then rolled out the favorite- “Dust in a Baggie”- that a decade ago jump-started his ongoing ascent. To see him now, still baby-faced, excited, and anticipating the next ten years, it’s easy to envision a space several times larger than the Wiltern, on a Sunday night in October of 2032, filled with thousands and thousands in yellow hats.