Billy Strings Brings The Thunder To Champlain Valley Fairgrounds (Vermont) (SHOW REVIEW)

Live music phenom Billy Strings was one of Burlington, Vermont’s most anticipated spring concerts in April of 2020, a date on one of many tours that was not to be when Covid-19 lockdowns began last year. Strings made good on the canceled date on August 3rd, returning to the Champlain Valley as the second consecutive sold-out show in the Higher Ground and Ben & Jerry’s ‘Midway Lawn’ series of summer shows. Over the course of two complete sets, the 27-year-old repaid the 5,000 ecstatic attendees for their patience, rewarding the Green Mountain State faithful with a night of almost non-stop musical highlights.

Despite coming on stage fashionably late (perhaps to take advantage of every possible moment of anticipation), Strings and his quartet put on a folk-rock master class. Just shy of sunset, Strings and his bandmates rolled into the Dillard’s ‘Old Home Place’, its final chords met with the first of many roars of applause throughout the course of the evening. After greeting the adoring crowd, Strings and his band kicked the tempo up, launching into his original ‘Everything’s The Same’, a rollicking tale alluding to the flurrying sameness of touring life, highlighted by the lightning-fast fingerpicking of mandolin whiz Jarrod Walker and banjo player Billy Failing. 

The foursome picked and thumped their way through one bluegrass barnburner after another, as the capacity crowd danced, whistled, and cheered in appreciation, which Strings reciprocated as the fast-paced ‘West Dakota Rose’ touched down for a landing. Shortly after, Strings took center stage, cutting loose on his sunburst Thompson acoustic guitar, delivering a series of brilliant fingerpicked runs in ‘Fire On My Tongue’. The tail end of the first set featured the first appearance of Strings amplifying his guitar, and showing every facet of his 6-string dexterity, before embarking on a 14-minute jaunt through “Thunder,” (lyrics by Robert Hunter) highlighted by a nod to Vermont legends Phish, with Strings weaving the signature riff of ‘First Tube’ into the song’s extended jam, before returning to the main theme for its final verses. 

After a brief intermission, the quartet kicked the party off again, warming up with the short and sweet ‘Beauty of My Dreams’, before easing to the rolling instrumental ‘Running The Route’, and slipping into the standby ‘Taking Water’, drawing a wave of cheers from the dancing masses. Amidst an energetic set rife with highlights, a nine-minute long take on ‘Pyramid Country’ was, without doubt, the standout, featuring a complete rendition of Phish’s “’Gotta Jibboo” sandwiched in the middle, which again drew enthusiastic cheers from the dancing masses. The night closed a short time later with Strings’ faux-gospel ‘If Your Hair’s Too Long’, featuring an interesting combination of polished and on-target harmonies while poking fun at the decades-long stigma of long-haired ‘hippies’, drawing a final swell of cheers and laughs with the song’s final verse, ‘You’ll live a life of fear and dread if you listen to the Grateful Dead’. 

Whether you were present for Billy Strings’ mid-summer stop in the Champlain Valley, or just heard about it second hand, you can be sure of two things: First, that the still-budding roots rock star is every bit as good as advertised. And second, that as long as Strings is its torchbearer, the future of bluegrass music is in all-too capable hands for the foreseeable future. 

Photos by Ross Mickel

Billy Strings Setlist Champlain Valley Fairgrounds and Exposition Center, Essex Junction, VT, USA 2021

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