Photos by Ryan Swerdlin, Review by Max Stewart
For those who have witnessed Billy Strings live in the last few years as he has ascended into another musical realm, consider yourselves lucky. Strings taps into something so pure and awe-inspiring, it is almost hard to comprehend. Every performance feels like seeing lightning in a bottle, but after watching Strings over the past few years it is clear that every show builds upon the magnetism and complexity of the previous, with no end in sight.
Strings has a mesmerizing prowess on the acoustic guitar that will even leave casual live music fans in a spellbound state. Sure, he is a bluegrass musician at heart. But he manages to pull in so many different styles and genres throughout the course of his live shows that fans of every genre be supremely satisfied. To add to that, his supporting cast are equally as talented and all augment the musical experience. Jarrod Walker (Mandolin), Billy Failing (Banjo), Royal Masat (Bass), and special guest John Mailander (Fiddle) all are masters of their craft. And the harmonies that they pull together will send shivers down your spine.
“Heading South to Georgia, four shows in a row…” Strings sang to open the first night of four sold out shows in Atlanta at The Eastern. Strings stated that he and Jarrod Walker wrote the tune (“I’ll Be Gone A Long Time”) the day before… Proof yet again of his bewildering talent: writing a fantastic song the day before a show and performing it live to perfection.
The proceeding four days of music was a joyous party, complete with no repeats, a wide variety of Strings’ full catalog, and a broad cover selection. Many folks took note when Strings won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2020 for Home, and for good reason. “Away From The Mire” off of that record is a perfect showcase of the sincere and emotive core of Strings’ songwriting, and it was the ideal choice to close their second set on Night 2. Strings could easily get by with the quality of his songs alone, but couple that with his mind-blowing guitar acumen and commanding voice and you’ve got full right to knight him king of the strings. And with his full band (or the royal court… and, yes, the bassist’s name is Royal Masat) and their ability to stretch all songs out into spacey jamgrass or rock-fueled instrumental sections, the live performance truly ties it all together. His latest album, Renewal, really came to life during the four nights, with each show getting a hearty dose of Strings’ most well-balanced and inspirational record to date: the unique time signature varieties and jams during “Hide And Seek” to close out Night 4 were most definitely a highlight.
It was very endearing for the local audience to see Strings sprinkle in many Georgia nods throughout the weekend as well. Some of the tributes were more obvious: Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs‘ “Bringing in the Georgia Mail” or Vicki Lawrence‘s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” Whereas others were a little more subtly referenced in the lyrics: Hank Williams‘ “Lonesome Whistle” (“Lord, I’m in Georgia doing time“), Joe Babcock‘s “I Washed My Hands in the Muddy Water” (“I was born in Macon, Georgia they kept my dad in the Macon jail…“), as well as covers of JJ Cale‘s “Ride Me High” (a frequent Widespread Panic tune) and the traditional “Workin’ On a Building” (performed frequently by the late Atlanta jam wizard, Col. Bruce Hampton). On the final night, Walker shining brightly on fiddle during a cover of Grateful Dead‘s “China Doll,” with Strings adding a magnificent electric tone on his acoustic for some high-energy pickin’. The band then proceeded to give another Georgia band a tribute with Allman Brothers Band‘s “Midnight Rider,” and the beautiful harmonies made it a top moment of the run.
The diverse covers of the performances kept fans on their toes throughout the four nights. Playing The Beatles‘ “And Your Bird Can Sing” on Night 1 as well as encoring with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” on Night 2 were both quintessentially String-sounding while honoring the core of the Liverpool four. It was also amazing to see him cover Pearl Jam‘s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” in the second set of Night 1, with fans singing the chorus in delight. The inspiration that Strings draws from clearly keeps his sound genreless and in a world of its own. Strings and his band keep in the bluegrass vein at their core (it was a poignant tribute to see his photo of the late Jeff Austin sitting by his guitar), but have taken the roots of the genre and sprung new life into it, a path that was paved by Austin’s band Yonder Mountain String Band, Sam Bush, Greensky Bluegrass, and many others.
Strings, Walker, Failing, Masat, and Mailander have an uncanny ability to be perfectly locked in but also free as the wind blows. They can fit the mold of whatever genre they are playing, or mid-song make a left turn from traditional bluegrass to a Primus meets Phish meets Black Sabbath jam, and bring it all back home with ease. If you have not witnessed the king and his royal court live as they have taken over the scene, heed our advice and join the musical revolution.