At Washington DC’s The Anthem, Billy Strings Rides High (SHOW REVIEW)

Billy Strings made his triumphant return to the Washington D.C. area this past weekend (Saturday 11/13) before a capacity crowd at The Anthem with a pair of rousing sets that covered a wide musical spectrum, featuring a healthy dose of original material from his previous pair of studio releases, Home & Renewal, as well as a varied array of covers, including a trio of well-received jamband-centric numbers that helped close out a memorable closing stanza. 

Marking his first concert in the Nation’s Capital since 2019, this appearance was a culmination of sorts for the bluegrass firebrand. Over the handful of his previous D.C. area performances between 2018-2019, Strings was limited to a series of abbreviated opening sets at The Anthem in support of fellow progressive trailblazers Greensky Bluegrass before garnering enough clout to headline the prestigious, albeit significantly smaller, cross-town venue, the 9:30 Club

Since then, Strings’ star has exploded in dramatic fashion, as the prodigious musician has continued adding to his already impressive resumé with a streak of weighty industry accolades, including a “Best Bluegrass Album” Grammy win for his 2019 studio effort Home in addition to walking away with the honors for “Guitar Player of the Year” & “New Artist of the Year” at the 2019 IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards before going on to win the elusive “Entertainer of the Year” title at the 2021 IMBA Awards in September. 

This well-deserved recognition has coincided with a series of high-profile gigs, including notable appearances on national stages such as the Grand Ole Opry, Austin City Limits and the Jimmy Kimmel Show, resulting in an increasingly busy performance calendar at progressively larger venues with perennially sold-out crowds crackling with generational energy as people of all ages are quickly catching on to this remarkably talented musician. 

Saturday night at The Anthem was no different as the capacity crowd of nearly 6,000 packed the cavernous auditorium after braving hour-long waits in near-freezing temperatures just to get inside. The buzz of anticipation in the room was palpable as Strings and his musical cohorts – Jarrod Walker (mandolin), Royal Masat (upright bass) & Billy Failing (banjo) – took to the stage at 9pm to thunderous applause and kicked things off with their debut rendition of the traditional standard “White House Blues”.

Originally recorded by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers in 1926, and later popularized by Bill Monroe, “White House Blues” recounts the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley and name-checks Washington D.C. multiple times throughout the song (Strings augmented the original lyrics by replacing “From Buffalo to Washington” with “From Baltimore to Washington”, much to the crowd’s delight) making it a geographically appropriate way to start the evening. 

Up next was “Hide & Seek”, the first of several songs from his latest album Renewal performed throughout the night, and featured some impressive distorted guitar work from Strings before effortlessly segueing back into the main melody. “Hide & Seek” was followed by another traditional tune popularized by Big Mon, Cy Coben’s tender love song “A Good Woman’s Love” that showcased Failing’s keen ability to supplement Strings’ lead vocals with some tasteful high harmonies. 

An extended take on Bill Emerson’s “Home of the Red Fox” was among the opening set’s highlights, clocking in at just under thirteen minutes with some exploratory jams helmed by Messrs. Strings & Walker before making a smooth transition into the fan-favorite original, “Must be Seven”, resulting in a goosebump-inducing sing-along from the packed house. 

A well-received trio of originals, the politically charged call-to-action “Watch it Fall”, along with “Red Daisy” & “Love & Regret” exemplified the group’s dynamic songwriting ability. Walker’s “Daisy” is a traditional-infused knee slapper that sounds like it was written a hundred years ago in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains while “Love & Regret” is a Strings-penned mournful ballad about the lament of lost love. However, despite their vastly dichotomous styles, they still manage to complement each other perfectly when played back-to-back, a testament to the members’ strong compositional skills.  

Chris Henry’s lively instrumental “West Dakota Rose” & New Grass Revival’s “This Heart of Mine” led into the Home original “Everything’s The Same”, which brought the opening set to a spirited conclusion. 

After a brief intermission, the group picked up right where they left off with masterful interpretations of hallowed material such as Danny Barnes’ “Pretty Daughter”, Doc Watson’s “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town”, and the traditional “Black Mountain Rag” before another Renewal track, the woeful country-tinged sing-along special, “Hellbender”. 

The middle segment of the set consisted of an impressive run of original material, with extended takes on “Highway Hypnosis” and “So Many Miles”, the latter of which saw banjoist Billy Failing performing admirably while taking advantage of a rare opportunity as lead vocalist, in addition to “Running the Route” & “Long Forgotten Dream”. 

Per usual, the group saved their absolute best for last as the set came to an extraordinary finish with a trio of jamband-centric covers that drove the crowd into a frenzied peak including John Phillips’ “Me & My Uncle” (popularized by the Grateful Dead), The Dillards “The Old Home Place” (Phish) and J.J. Cale’s “Ride Me High” (Widespread Panic), which was neatly tucked inside a ferocious set-closing “Meet Me at the Creek”.

The band returned once more for a brief encore with a delicate performance of the Home original, “Freedom”, featuring a unique unplugged arrangement with just Strings & Walker on guitar and mandolin, respectively.

Billy Strings Setlist The Anthem, Washington, DC, USA 2021


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