With his dusty blonde hair flirting shoulder-length, and sporting a Bones Brigade T-shirt, baby-faced Billy Strings looked as much the part of a skater grinding and carving precarious turns in the bowl at Venice Beach as he does as a wunderkind grinding and carving precarious turns on acoustic guitar. The 25-year-old has bent bluegrass on its ear with his light-speed runs, high and lonesome voice, and an inclination to color the genre with dabs of psychedelia. Strings (William Apostol) brought a trio of superbly talented co-conspirators with him to this intimate and newly-renovated southern Massachusetts performance space, and over two sets, wowed the appreciative crowd with a mix of worthy originals and bluegrass gems.
Burning on the opening “Slow Train,” Strings and his mates established immediate credence to the reputation as monster players preceding them these days. It only got more impressive from there. The first extended piece came on the third entry- an original prison story, “While I’m Waiting Here,”- that featured an interlude of explosive guitar and complementary blitzes from banjoist Billy Failing, into a wonderfully ramped-up sequence that segued the trio of “I’m Still Here,” “Thirst Mutilator,” and “So Many Miles.” Throughout, there were plenty of carefully orchestrated cues that facilitated seamless shifting from song to song, and plenty of space for Strings, Failing, and the brilliance of mandolinist Jarrod Walker to stretch anchored by the unblinking bass work of Royal Masat.
There was a dutiful nod to Doc Watson on “Along the Road,” and a closing breezy take on “Streamlined Cannonball,” then a short set break before a resurgent run on Hot Rize’s “Nellie Cane.” Comfortable, the quartet climbed on Strings’ building octaves for a moving and powerful “Pyramid Country,” from the group’s latest album, 2017’s Turmoil and Tinfoil. After some Strings head-banging on “Georgia Mail,” Walker revealed the band’s just-announced IBMA nomination as emerging artist of the year, and Strings as bluegrass guitarist of the year. Naturally, they took the next opportunity to show why, with a wildly expanded version of the Turmoil title track that, among others, slyly referenced a melodic line from Phish’s “Rift.”
More traditional bluegrass followed “that ruckus,” as Strings described it, with “Shackles & Chains,” “Sweet Blue-Eyed Darlin’,” and a final “Tennessee Stud.” A standing ovation brought the boys back for an encore of “On the Line” into “Train 45” that neatly returned the passengers on this robust rail ride satisfied and perhaps even stunned at all they just heard. As another in a wave of youthful artists maintaining and innovating the spirit of bluegrass Billy Strings is as awesome as they come, combining a progressive, playful sense of adventure with a devoted respect to the art of the classic sound.