I last reviewed a streamed Billy Strings show in July. A lot has changed since then. Online concerts have grown more sophisticated, with platforms like Twitch taking the tech out of the artist’s hands. Billy’s hair? That too has changed from the oft braided locks of an up and comer to the mullet of someone who has arrived. Elton John’s stylist joined team Billy, or at least the stoner who tours with him always recommending tie dye has been overruled by an array of jackets from Sgt. Pepper’s estate sale. One thing that hasn’t changed? The quality of the music Billy and his bandmates are producing.
The hype surrounding these shows, what made them an event rather than just a run of performances, was the direct tie in to the Grateful Dead and the 50th anniversary of their own concerts in Port Chester. Billy and his management team did not look at this as just another show. Nor did they let pride get in the way when thinking how to market this run. They embraced the connection with the Dead, even scheduling the performances for the exact 6 nights in February that the Dead played all those decades ago. On paper, the celebration of the Dead was a beacon to all Heads. Billy’s ability to take what outwardly appears to be bluegrass and country ballad music and weave psychedelic music through it, like he is creating something new out of an old pair of blue jeans too precious to get rid of, but maybe too old to wear, seemed like a perfect pairing with all things Dead. Thus, when Billy and his band started the night off with not one, but two brand new originals, it was as much a statement as a bold decision.
The first song reminded the crowd, new and old to the Billy Strings Revolution, that bluegrass was the force that unified these 4 hungry players. To their roots, they would pay homage. Even the ballad that followed let the fans know that this celebration of the Grateful Dead would not just be a re-creation of their sound. It would be a remembrance of their spirit. Look back at those setlists from 1971 and you’ll see that the Dead premiered many songs throughout their historic run in Port Chester.
Even the third song of the night was an original, but it was the first song from the band's canon that the fans had heard before. Still even the arrival of ‘Long Forgotten Dream” did not satisfy all the fans in attendance, as the spirited debate over the music was heating up in the chat on Twitch.
What those new to the Billy Strings scene needed, beyond the requisite patience, was to know he and his band’s ability to satisfy every customer in the house. Sure, the challenge was magnified with over 15,000 viewers by the fourth tune, but the collective criticism fell to just a few chattering crows as Billy and the band meandered into the recognizable musical phrasing of ‘Bird Song”. Billy added his Kentucky blue bread voice (via Michigan) to the upward climbs of the scales in each verse and the cascading harmonies of each chorus.
Billy transitioned into “While I’m Waiting Here”, another original and the prototypical Billy Strings song. Starting off rooted in bluegrass changes, it branches out from these roots after each verse. After the second chorus, the experimentation of the band shone through, with solos from all three of the band’s lead musicians; Billy Strings on guitar, Billy Failing on banjo and Jarrod Walker on mandolin, weaving in and out of each other. Each player didn’t feel the need to build towards a crescendo, instead making musical statements and letting their art blend into the next vision from the next player.
“Home of The Red Fox” a pseudo-upbeat bluegrass instrumental was littered with precise instrument tickling, causing a guitar, mandolin and banjo uproar, expanding the bluegrass sound. I may sound like a broken record, but this band never does. Even their psychedelic rhythm segues, led by the ever-present bluegrass bass lines of Royal Masat, bends the understood rules of bluegrass and your mind simultaneously. The band seamlessly transitioned back into “Ole Slew Foot” to remind us all of their straight bluegrass chops. Spot on harmonies? Check. Finger picking that produces smoke with its speed and precision? Of course. What about humility amongst even the greatest? It’s like watching synchronized swimming with these guys.
After a cover of and tribute to Jeff Austin, the set closed with “Everything the Same”, another Billy Strings original. The reverence of this set, in relation to the Grateful Dead, was clear. Of course, the band was going to play Dead covers, but the musical message wasn’t just about seeing the path of others. Tonight, was a celebration of both bands.
Set break included a pre-recorded interview with Billy, where he shared his thoughts about his run at the Cap and the influence of the Grateful Dead, amongst other topics. As set break wore down, the night’s ESP experiment was stated and all-in attendance were asked to concentrate on the drawing of eyes and a brow on the screen, and to send this image to Dead and Company bassist Oteil Burbridge. We were even given his location in Florida, so as not to let our message get sent to the wrong Oteil Burbridge. That would be awkward.
The second set picked up right where the first left off, with Billy and his bandmates playing their own originals and letting their musical prowess, from song writing to song performance and all things in between, speak for itself. A take on Bill Monroe’s instrumental “Dusty Miller” technically flawless. And while the building of tonight’s musical cake had taken on unique textures and unparalleled flavors up until this point, all cakes need a cherry on top and tonight’s would take the form of a “Dark Star”. Often, when I hear shows that the Dead busted out “Dark Star”, it is as much a framing of time as it is a song. For the 15 or so minutes the band played, all who were lucky enough to be there to hear it were freed. Our tether to expected phrasing and rhythms was happily cut, leaving us to calmly float in the space being created by the Dead. This night, as Billy slowly built into this Dead classic, the feeling was the same. The slightly unsettling video of fans dancing in front of their computer cameras had been replaced with retro, lava lamp like blobs climbing the walls of the Capital Theater. Out with the new and back to the old. Throughout the night, Billy had used pedals to change his guitar sounds, from acoustic to electric and with the amount of space in the solos of “Dark Star” these sounds of disequilibrium were balancing. His electric sound stood out against the acoustic backing of the rest of the band. Unsatisfied with the rhythmic constraints of a “Dark Star” jam, Billy broke through, leaving the chord progression and rhythm behind as he went into a deep jam after the first verse. The crescendo within these changes added to this masterpiece cover.
Showing how much he and his band understood the history of the night, Billy and his band debuted another original, “Love and Regret”, in the middle of “Dark Star”, just as the Dead had done with “Wharf Rat”, the first time they played it 50 years ago, in Port Chester.
“Slow Train”, “Love Like Me” and “Pyramid Country” nearly rounded out the set. These originals once again reminded us of what each player in this band could do, the strength of their abilities, and the raw emotion with which Billy and those around him use to approach their art; from the time they write the first phrase and musical riff to the time they are playing it so many nights on the road.
But they weren’t through. To drive home the theme of the night, the show ended with one more debut. Psychedelic solos over a metal chord progression at the end of “Pyramid Country” launched the band in “Hide and Seek”. Think about this. This band is playing the same nights the Dead played in Port Chester 50 years ago. That creates pressure. This night was the first and was free. Chances are the newest fans of the run would be tuning in this night. This creates more pressure. And how do these cats respond? By sprinkling in the fewest Dead covers you could expect and debuting 4 new songs. And they satisfied us all.
Many bands are trying to figure out how to include the fans in the virtual concert experience. But those that are having the greatest success in doing so are realizing that the best thing they can do for the fans is to give us more. Not necessarily more music, but more content. Content that you can’t usually offer 18,000 viewers, Billy and his team recognized this and let us in on a conversation between Billy and Oteil Burbridge over Zoom. Sure, the question of our ESP message being received needed resolution, but allowing the fans to see these guys shoot the breeze for a few minutes really was a unique experience for all of us flies on the wall.
Billy and his band did not let the night’s expectations force them into being something they aren’t. Instead, Billy Strings stepped forward on this night and left his stamp on the long history of the Grateful Dead, pulling many of its most devout followers along for another strange trip. Trust me, we will all enjoy the ride.