Billy Strings kicked off his Streaming Strings tour – a nine-show run of crowd-free virtual performances at various Nashville venues – from the Brooklyn Bowl Nashville last night. The two-set performance, Strings’ first public appearance since March 1st, featured material that ran the gamut from traditional to progressive and included a brief guest appearance from guitarist Marcus King.
Despite the fact that Strings and his remarkably impressive ensemble – consisting of Billy Failing (banjo), Royal Masat (bass) & Jerrod Walker (mandolin) – had not physically been in the same room with each other in several months due to COVID-19 induced travel & social gathering restrictions, there were little to no signs of any rustiness whatsoever from the talented quartet. Vocal harmonies were incredibly tight throughout the entire two-and-a-half-hour performance, as was the interplay between the prodigious musicians.
Strings & Co. Opened things up with the exceptionally appropriate “Watch it Fall”, which carried significant weight as the guitarist sang the poignant lyrics – “Our heads are buried in the sand / Our leaders dug the hole” – to an eerily empty room. A rousing take on Leroy Drumm/Cal Freeman’s “Slow Train” was up next, followed by String’s tender prison-ballad “While I’m Waiting Here.” The band then preceded to tear through a pair of traditional bluegrass mainstays – “Doin’ My Time” (Flatt & Scruggs), “I’m Goin’ Fishing” (Doc Watson) – before slowing things down for a gorgeous rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “China Doll.” Strings’ breathy vocals perfectly match the fragile tone set by Robert Hunter’s masterful lyrics, making it impossible not to get chills hearing him belt out the singular line “Just a little nervous from the fall” during the song’s emotional climax.
The Billy Failing original “So Many Miles”, which showcased the banjoists unique (but strong) vocal stylings, also featured the first intense dissonant instrumental section that has become the group’s trademark sound. Walker’s adroit mandolin skills led the initial jam, which ultimately bubbled up into a cacophony of controlled musical chaos before giving way to a lively solo from Strings who guides his bandmates through a seamless segue into his ominous original “Dealing Despair.” The first set wrapped up with a pair of songs from Strings’ latest studio offering Home. The sorrowful “Enough to Leave”, Billy’s heartfelt ode to some late friends lost due to the ravages of hard-drug use, featured a tasteful distorted guitar solo reminiscent of the album version while a red-hot psychedelia-tinged version of “Away From the Mire” finished things off before a brief twenty-minute intermission.
The group wasted no time getting the streaming audience’s blood pumping again with a spirited take on Strings’ fan-favorite “Dust in a Baggie” before settling in with his progressive instrumental “Pyramid Country.” This version of “Pyramid”, which was dedicated to Failing’s dog “Charlie”, features a deep & exploratory jam that contained hints of the Grateful Dead’s “The Other One” before segueing nicely into J.J. Cale’s funky “Ride Me High”, resulting in a near-twenty minute segment that ultimately came to anchor the second set. A quick take on another Home track, “Must Be Seven” preceded the evening’s much-anticipated collaboration with Marcus King.
Eschewing his trademark Gibson guitar that he has primarily used during the duo’s previous King & Strings collaborations, Marcus came out donning an acoustic guitar as the newly-formed quintet started George Gershwin’s timeless classic “Summertime.” As with all previous joint efforts between the two young musicians, King’s bluesy guitar stylings mesh perfectly with Strings’ group, sounding as if he has been playing with this group every step of the way since their inception. King then took to the mic to perform lead vocal duties on Jimmy Reed’s infamous blues number “Big Boss Man.”
King’s fruitful – albeit somewhat abbreviated – appearance was followed by a fiery pair of covers, “Ernest T. Grass” & “Little Maggie” to close out the evening.
While there is obviously no substitute for seeing live music in person, last night proves that virtual live streaming can successfully be utilized as a more-than-acceptable medium until things (hopefully) return to normal. Though Strings repeatedly lamented throughout the night about the lack of a live audience – “Doesn’t smell like hippies enough” & “We miss the pleasant aroma of marijuana being smoked on the rail” were among his better lines – it clearly did not affect their playing at all.
In person or not, Billy Strings is back. And in these extraordinarily dark & uncertain times, that is all one can really ask for.