Billy Strings Drops Masterclass In Bluegrass Improv at Capitol Theatre/Déjà vu Experiment Kickoff (SHOW REVIEW)

Billy Strings kicked off his six-night virtual livestream event from New York’s Capitol Theatre on Thursday evening with a rousing pair of sets that featured a healthy mix of originals, including a handful of brand-new compositions, and covers spanning multiple eras & genres.

Officially referred to as “The Déjà vu Experiment”, this week-long run of shows, which coincides with the exact dates from the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s own infamous extended run at the legendary venue in 1971, was designed to pay homage to the Dead and their “musicianship & fearlessness” while “unlocking (the) improvisational boundaries of music and psychedelia in a familiar yet unique way,” as is eloquently stated on Strings’ website.
For those unfamiliar with the backstory: The Dead, along with psychologists Stanley Krippner & Montague Ullman, attempted to conduct ESP experiments of their own by using the Dead’s audience to telepathically transmit an image of an art print that was projected on screens behind the band to two subjects located 45 miles or so from the venue.

While one of the subjects did yield some statistically significant results, most of the data derived from these experiments was ultimately deemed inconclusive. Strings is taking a similar approach by asking his audience to focus on a particular image (last night’s example was a pair of eyes) and attempt to mentally convey it to a different special guest each night. After the show, Strings & his crew will conduct a video interview with that evening’s “subject” to determine if there’s any correlation. If last night’s post-show conversation with Oteil Burbridge (Dead & Company, Allman Brothers) was any indication, these segments are likely to be rich with some hilarious banter and fascinating interaction between talented & like-minded musicians but likely won’t yield much in the way of ground-breaking scientific data.

Musically, Strings & his immensely talented band – consisting of Jarrod Walker (mandolin), Royal Massat (bass) & Billy Failing (banjo) – sounded as sharp as ever, despite not having performed together live in nearly four months. A pair of new originals – “Fire on My Tongue” & “Morning Light”, the latter of which is a forlorn love-song that highlights Strings’ remarkably mature songwriting abilities – opened the show before giving way to “Long Forgotten Dream” from his 2019 Grammy-nominated studio effort Home. Up next was a brief instrumental jam that led into a breathtaking version of “Bird Song”, the first of two Grateful Dead songs that would be performed that evening, and was punctuated by a pair of searing distorted guitar solos from Strings. Fan-favorite “While I’m Waiting Here” was then followed by a rousing dyad of bluegrass standards, Bill Emerson’s “Home of the Red Fox” & Johnny Horton’s “Ole Slew-Foot”, before closing out the set with a cover of Yonder Mountain String Band’s “Sorrow Is a Highway” and another Home track, “Everything’s the Same”.

After airing a pre-recorded interview with Strings & noted Dead-historian Gary Lambert that focuses on the young musician’s relatively recent discovery of the Dead’s music during the twenty-minute setbreak, Strings & co. kicked off the second set with yet another Home track that has quickly become one of his most popular originals, “Must be Seven”, followed by Bill Monroe’s “Dusty Miller”, which featured the lightning-fast finger work of Walker on the mandolin. Up next was the evening’s musical highlight as the group launched into their first-ever performance of the holy grail of Grateful Dead songs, “Dark Star”.

The next twenty-five minutes or so was a masterclass in musical improvisation as the four musicians effortlessly navigated this free-form cosmic journey with the patience and clear sense of purpose it requires. Tucked in-between “Dark Star’s” two verses was the live debut of a country-infused original “Love & Regret”, a clever nod to the Dead debuting “Wharf Rat” in the midst of their own mammoth “Dark Star” fifty years prior. The set came to a triumphant close with another beloved bluegrass chestnut, “Slow Train”, followed by a trio of originals, “Love Like Me”, “Pyramid Country” – which featured some impressive new musical nuances – and the live premiere of yet another Strings original composition, “Hide & Seek”.

Strings continues “The Déjà vu Experiment” this weekend, with pay-per-view packages available via FANS before returning to Twitch for a free webcast of the final show next Tuesday. For more information & virtual ticket options, go to:

Billy Strings Setlist Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NY, USA, The Déjà Vu Experiment 2021

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