“It’s our privilege to be here and play for you all,” Billy Strings said from the stage.
He was speaking March 16 to an audience of 4,500 during the first of three, sold-out gigs at Cincinnati’s Andrew J. Brady Music Center. And while there was no reason to doubt Strings’ sincerity – few musicians look to enjoy their job as much as the guitarist does – it was also the audience’s privilege to witness Strings’ version of bluegrass, one that is rooted in tradition yet is spreading the seeds into other, long-fallow fields.
To witness Strings do his thing with mandolinist Jarrod Walker, banjoist Billy Failing, bassist Royal Masat and fiddler Alex Hargreaves, a relative newcomer who’s put the band over the top, in such intimate surroundings is something like being a dinosaur just before the comet hit. It won’t be long before Strings is an exclusive denizen of arenas and sheds.
But on this night, the quintet was in a venue small enough to allow for Strings to trade a pick for a joint with a front-row fan who used a guard in the pit as a middle man and for him to honor requests for “Psycho” and “The Preacher and the Bear” late in the second of two sets that encompassed two hours, 30 minutes of music with no encore.
Across 29 songs, Strings and the band reeled off a blend of bluegrass that takes the traditions of the Stanley Brothers’ “Paul and Silas” and plops it down in the middle of the Grateful Dead ethos, where jamming is a sacred thing and arrangements are meant to be futzed with. As such, “Thunder,” the track featuring Robert Hunter’s words and Strings’ music, unspooled into a glorious thread of improvisation, always coming back to the main theme and finally living up to the potential it only hinted at in its earliest iterations.
The atmosphere was big “D” Dead, too, with the high-octane audience exploding in approval whenever the band hit on an inspired riff–which Strings does essentially every time he solos–and particularly when the guitarist and Hargreaves lit into a spirited call-and-response on the aforementioned “Thunder.”
A lot has changed since I first saw the then-virtually unknown Strings playing solo in a bar, where he opened for the Travelin’ McCourys in 2016. Then, it was like my first experience with Stevie Ray Vaughan – two notes and it was clear this was someone special. Seven years on, Strings and his band are nudging bluegrass into rock-n-roll territory, a trend most notable when the guitarist feeds his acoustic through his envelope filter and transforms himself into an electrified hayseed singing about mama, moonshine and the farm.
And he’s generous with his success, investing in a screen that showed images of the band playing below and a light show that added to the atmosphere and found each band member playing in front of neon-lit geometrical shapes that seemed to harken back to Led Zeppelin and its symbols. Whether that is the intention is unknown. But one thing is beyond obvious–Strings may be a bluegrass musician but he delivers his music with a rock-n-roll attitude that would make him stand out even if he wasn’t a once-in-a-generation talent.
That he is that, too only adds to the allure.