“He plays with this otherworldly calm, like Jimi Hendrix. I get to play with some monsters, and the thing that impresses me most about Billy is not just his technical ability but that he plays like someone who has been on this planet a lot longer than he has.” – Les Claypool (Founder, Fearless Flying Frog Brigade )
“Billy Strings. The best to ever #@*$#’ do it” – Post Malone (Country Singer)
You Had To Be There
One night at a recent Billy Strings concert, which I highly recommend, I noticed a new phenomenon, what was once a true rock ‘n’ roll crowd was dancing in the aisles to traditional bluegrass music—a Ralph Stanley tune. Mr. Stanley is about as classic as you can get in Americana music. Along with Bill Monroe, he was one of the primary pioneers of Bluegrass music. It was as raucous a crowd as I’ve ever witnessed. I think the real reason was the unabashed joy that Billy Springs played with. The wunderkind guitarist was playing near total abandon, utterly fearless, while belting out song after song without any thought.
The audience could escape this get-it-done-now world for a few hours and disappear into a timeless vortex where only music mattered. And the Americana music was extraordinary. Flat picking at a speed that dazzled the senses, Strings was a non-stop virtuoso content to bring the crowd into his realm of ageless tunes and pure joy.
Before the concert, the mosh pit, occupied by the fans closest to the stage, identified by their wristbands, cordoned off the front of the stage with military-like precision. I’ve never seen such devotion in my life. This would go on to be more than a concert; as they used to say in the ’60s, it was a “Happening.” The crowd had plenty of “Grateful Dead” tie-dye t-shirts in the group, as the two ensembles seemed to enjoy a crossover fan base. Billy Strings also has a plethora of tie-dye shirts on sale in the hallway, and that appears to be a staple that’s here to stay. Sure, the shirts are more expensive, but the quality of the the cotton has greatly improved. A true win-win for fans and artists.
It was a combination of a rural and urban crowd, like Woodstock, with only more clothing! Strings was a mesmerizing sight to behold. He was a guitar savant. Everything came naturally to him. He didn’t have the mannered showmanship of Mick Jagger. Nor the dynamic dance moves of James Brown or the swift choreography of Michael Jackson. He wasn’t a beautiful dancer like Elvis, nor did he have the bombastic power of Jimmy Page & Robert Plant in their prime. No, he was the Natural come to life. He was Roy Hobbs blasting a home run into the light standards and creating a scene that lasts forever. Springs is Johnny In Charlie Daniel’s enduring classic, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Sitting in the woods, damn good at his craft, but somehow mythic, larger than life, and he beats the Devil at his game of choice. He out fiddles old Beelzebub deep in the forest primeval and saves his soul in the process.
Live At Fillmore East
While I was watching Billy weave his magic spell with extended solos and riffs, I was taken back to the soaring slide of Duane Allman and the entire band in the epoch-shattering LP, At Fillmore East. Here is one of many sound-struck patrons waxing eloquent from that unforgettable night.
“There has never been a better showcase for improvisational rock than this 1971 concert recording, and few (if any) live rock albums are in its rank. With only two studio albums (and plenty of touring) under their belt, the Georgia sextet tore into the Fillmore East with road-tested buoyancy. Titanic guitarist Duane Allman was at the peak of his powers, pushing his foil, Dickey Betts, to unsurpassed peaks. Vocalist-keyboardist Gregg Allman would have been a star in any other setting; here he’s merely one more component in a brilliant ensemble. Duane Allman died shortly after At Fillmore East LP was shipped, and the Brothers haven’t scaled such heights since. But, then, neither has anyone else.”- Steven Stolder (writer)
Like Billy Springs and the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers were exceptional in creating ethereal, Edenic sounds and melodic, flowing harmonies that seemingly drift effortlessly past your ears, eyes, and senses. They are all called “jam bands” for a good reason. They play, and the crowd goes on a blissed-out sojourn.
It’s String’s Time
As Trigger Coronoes writes for the website Saving Country Music, “Right now, we are living through the era of Billy Strings in bluegrass. Not dissimilar to the eras marked by Bill Monroe’s founding of the discipline, and the rise of acts like Flatt & Scruggs, then later as J.D. Crow and The New South helped define the heights of the subgenre, and then folks like John Hartford helped launch the newgrass movement, it’s the visage of Billy Strings that you will see whenever you turn to the current chapter in this proud art form.
It also might be an era chronicled as one of the most profound and valued in bluegrass history, where new fans flocked to this old but energetic and enthralling medium due to the engaging nature of this unique, almost other-worldly performer. Billy Strings symbolizes a renewal—if you will—of this version of country music that can attract and contain men and women who we regard with no less majesty than the maestros of previous eras and musical disciplines, from the guitar gods of the ’60s and ’70s to Mozart.”
But, as I observed along with many others, like the Dead and the Allman’s, Billy Strings & band are far better in person. You have to see them live. There is a different vibe when they interact with a crowd. They feed off each other. The tune is simply an idea, a starting point, and the group goes off from there. Renewal, their new LP, is testimony that what happens live is a different medium.
But what is a fact about the new Billy Strings album Renewal is the relatively straightforward nature of the project, with some off-ramp journeys. But traditional bluegrass is what you get; yes, Strings takes it to new places, and it becomes spacey in stretches. But it never strays too far from its origins.
Revived with Renewal
“But Renewal is full of purposeful bluegrass songs often composed with co-writers to make sure lyricism isn’t just a secondary concern, while additional players were also brought in—specifically John Mailander on fiddle, and Spencer Cullum Jr. on pedal steel—to flesh out certain tracks. They joined the essential players behind Billy Strings—banjoist Billy Failing, bassist Royal Masat, and Jarrod Walker on mandolin who deserve incredible credit for following Billy Strings on his musical exploration, and helping to keep it all accessible to the rest of us.” – Steven Stolder
Strings is defined by his brilliant, out-of-this world improvisation. That is where Billy Strings will leave his mark. He is not a terrific lyrist necessarily. That is not his forte.
A Taste of Country & Bluegrass
If I’ve heard once, I heard it a thousand times from various people; “I don’t care for Country music.” Well, give it a chance, folks. What’s great about the country bluegrass genre is that it allows the artist to take things beyond his or her’s imagination. And that’s where Strings and his band soar. They are like shooting stars inviting crowds to join them on this breathtaking journey without a destination. They seek Nirvana, and that sonic redemption is where they end up. Everyone is happy for the ride.
How else to describe the ebullience of this Tuesday night crowd? I’ll close with the master poet himself, Mr. Bob Dylan.
“Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky,
With one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate,
Driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about the day until tomorrow.”
Photo Credits to Jesse Faatz and David McClister