Bluegrass maven Billy Strings wrapped up the opening weekend of his Meet Me At The Drive-In Tour this past Sunday (9/13/20) at the Mohegan Sun Arena (rather, in the adjacent parking lot) in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania with a pair of captivating sets that encompassed myriad genres, from Bill Monroe to Phish.
The freshly coifed musical mastermind took to the stage a few hours earlier than the previous two evenings beneath damp & grey skies and immediately matched the somewhat subdued ambience with a brief and leisurely jam that quickly picked up steam and charged into a rousing version of Strings’ well-known medley that combines John Hartford’s “I’m Still Here” with The Monkee’s “Last Train to Clarksville.” The band eventually found their way to “Thirst Mutilator”, the first of only two original songs in the opening set, that featured some breathtaking distorted guitar licks from Strings and segued flawlessly into a crowd-pleasing take on Phish’s “Back on the Train”, the group’s first version of the jamband classic since November 2019.
Since Sunday also marked the 109th anniversary of Bill Monroe’s birthday, Strings took the opportunity to express his love & gratitude for the music of bluegrass’s patriarch before launching into a sequence of Big Mon originals and associated cover songs that included a fiery take on “Dusty Miller” – which featured the lightning-quick fretwork of mandolinist Jerrod Walker – as well as the group’s first ever public performances of “Close By” & “Rawhide.” Strings & Co. closed the opening frame with a tender rendition of his somber “Enough to Leave” before a spirited version of the String Cheese Incident’s “Black Clouds” that featured a particularly psychedelic and exploratory outro jam.
The second set started off with Strings eschewing his acoustic guitar in favor of a banjo as he proceeded to engage in a beautiful musical back-and-forth with banjoist Billy Failing on “Dos Banjos”, a track from the 2014 Strings & Don Julin album Fiddle Tune X. The rest of the band then joined the dueling Billys on stage before launching into an energetic version of another fan-favorite medley featuring the original knee-slapper “On the Line” and Ralph Stanley’s “Train 45.” A pair of classic bluegrass covers, Monroe’s “Gold Rush” and Hank Snow’s “I’ll Remember You, Love, In My Prayers”, filled out the first half of the evening’s closing stanza.
The ethereal title track from Strings’ 2019 LP Home featured more intricate distorted guitar work from Strings amidst another kaleidoscopic jam before settling into the final original song of the evening, “Dealing Despair”, from Strings 2017 solo-debut LP Turmoil & Tinfoil.
The musical highlight of the evening, however, was undoubtedly the jamband-centric trifecta of covers that firmly planted an emotional exclamation point onto the end of the second set. Starting off was a tear-jerking rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Wharf Rat”, which showcased Strings remarkably mature and emotive vocals. As well-known as Strings is for his instrumental prowess, and for good reason, it is performances like this that prove that his vocal abilities are just as worthy of the same lofty praise, if not more so. A raucous pairing of Jeff Austin’s “15 Steps” – which featured distinct teases of the Dead’s “Shakedown Street” – and J.J. Cale’s “Ride Me High” – a song popularized in jamband circles by Widespread Panic – brought the set to a frenzied close. The group returned to the stage for one more Monroe tune, “Y’all Come”, which was met with the glorious dissonance of applause and appreciative car horns.
Sunday’s revue was yet another in a long list of reasons why Mr. Strings and his musical cohorts are arguably the hottest act in live music today. Sure, there are plenty of other progressive bluegrass bands out there who successfully blend traditional and contemporary material, but none have been able to do so with the same skill, intensity, and emotional quotient as this ensemble. To place a modern twist on an old adage: “There is nothing like a Billy Strings concert.”
Hey Dave! I was in the Baltimore group parked next to you on Saturday. Great to meet you. Sounds like we messed up missing the Sunday show! Great write up. Look forward to crossing paths again.
Billy Strings has made me a Bluegrass Junkie. Love Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe BUT not only can Billy perform but he’s just so easy on the eyes…….