photo credit: Stephen Bloch
An extremely loud and colorful group of all ages filled Knoxville Civic Auditorium for BIlly Strings’ first of two sold out nights. It was characteristic Billy music; complex energetic jams and shred with a heavy dose of some of the best bluegrass you can hear. Billy has found a natural home in the south east and one in which people are traveling to see. I remarked to the guy next to me “This is really one of the best ways to spend your time.” He agreed and told me he traveled from Colorado to be there.
The band excels when they create a phenomenal rhythm together especially when they are on the edge of the chaotic. It showed through in “Turmoil and Tinfoil,” “Know it All” and “Meet Me at the Creek.” Jarrod Walker (mandolin), Billy Failing (banjo) and Strings all have the ability to shred and build solos in a way that feels like a roller coaster ride with several peaks and valleys. All nestled in their collective driving rhythm and constant, ever present, low end groove provided by upright bassist Royal Masat. It was damn near perfect bluegrass with a wild twist.
Their precise and in-depth playing of the progressive and traditional bluegrass catalog was a treat and an anchor to their show. Seldom Scene’s “Old Train”opened the first set showing their vocal harmony. Alone on stage in the second set, Billy gave vocally haunting and chilling renditions of Doc Watson’s “Brown’s Ferry Blues” and “Am I Born To Die” (a cappella). The show was seriously fun but it had an eerie high lonesome sound all its own.
The second set’s “Fire Line” and “Running the Route” > “Running” proved them at their best when they were in the jam. Their potency came through when they left the confines of the song structure for uncharted musical territory. Trailblazing down this path is where their unique treasure and contribution lies and what I hope to see more of.
Billy Strings continues to be one of the most interesting live acts in music and bluegrass today. The scene is fortunate to be watching a band near stalwart proportions with this generation’s virtuoso flatpicker.