After two red-hot performances in New Orleans, Bluegrass phenom Billy Strings kicked off a brief three-night run of live-streaming shows at Austin, Texas’s ACL Live at The Moody Theater on Friday evening. Fresh off a well-deserved “Best Bluegrass Album” win at the 63rd GRAMMY Awards for his 2019 Sophomore studio effort HOME, Strings and his lethally talented ensemble, consisting of Billy Failing (banjo), Jarrod Walker (mandolin) and Royal Massat (upright bass), tore through a pair of eclectic sets, featuring a typically diverse setlist rife with covers & older favorites, along with a plethora of new material that was debuted during last month’s infamous Capitol Theatre run.
Kicking things off was the new original “Secrets”, an upbeat number making just its third live appearance before the group charged into a fiery combo of Bill Emerson’s “Home of the Red Fox” & Johnny Horton’s beloved “Ole Slew-Foot”. A pair of new originals, “Morning Light” & “Running the Route” gave way to the Billy Failing specialty “So Many Miles”, which featured some strong vocal and instrumental work from Strings’ trusted banjoist. Up next was a welcome surprise as bassist (and Texas native) Royal Massat was given the rare opportunity to shine as lead vocalist on the group’s debut version of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys’ “New San Antonio Rose”, lending credence to the fact that, while Mr. Strings is obviously the leader of this group, the remaining members are all more than capable of confidently & comfortably stepping into the spotlight when called upon. The set came to a close with inspired takes on The Stanley Brothers “Nobody’s Love is Like Mine”, and a pair of originals, the tender “Love Like Me” and the much newer “Wargasm” which, despite having only been performed three times in public so far, is quickly becoming a fan-favorite with it’s thoughtful lyrics and intriguing outro jam.
After a brief 20-minute set-break, the band returned to the stage with a trio of some of their most popular original numbers, “Dust in a Baggie”, While I’m Waiting Here” and the instrumental powerhouse “Pyramid Country”, before two more well-received covers, Blackfoot’s “Train, Train” & the group’s second-ever performance of the Johnny Cash anthem “Big River”. Up next was another recently debuted original, “Love & Regret”, that, with lines such as “I see her runnin’, I’m not the same. I chased after pleasure to bury my pain. It’s resurrected when I say her name. But love and regret are one in the same” once again showcases Strings’ ability to write remarkably mature & heartfelt lyrics that seemingly belie his relatively young age. The remainder of the set featured memorable takes on a few more originals: “Highway Hypnosis”, “Away From the Mire” and “Long Forgotten Dream”, as well as a breathtaking version of Jerry Garcia’s “Brid Song.”
While Strings & Co. are slowly adding live-performance dates in front of actual in-person audiences to their spring & summer calendars, this show (fortunately & hopefully) marks the final scheduled appearance the group will have to make to a completely empty venue as a result of the ongoing pandemic. That said, with or without the energy of a live audience to feed off, Strings and his crew continue to prove that they are up to the task of putting on the type of inspired performances that have quickly cemented their status as one of the hottest musical acts in recent history.