Bill Strings performs during last night’s show at the Sinclair.
LIVE SHOW REVIEW
The way Billy Strings has exploded on a bluegrass scene that is relatively obscure it would be tempting to call him an overnight sensation. But that would be a disservice to both his innate talent and his hard work. While audiences have expanded exponentially since he put down his “day job,” and left his Michigan home for Nashville three years ago, it’s entailed much hard work for the 26-year-old Strings, playing about 200 shows a year.
His fiery finger-picking has created such a passionate following and oft-overly zealous fans that security meetings with staffers at each road venue now have a place alongside soundcheck. That passion was quick to erupt last night at the second of Billy Strings’ two sold-out shows at the Sinclair in Harvard Square. As soon the house lights dimmed and Strings and his band emerged from the shadows on stage to launch into “Taking on Water,” it was if fans had just been tossed handfuls of free-beer tickets. The hootin’ and hollerin’ was instant, as was the smile on the guitarist’s face, and the lightning in his fingers.
It was hard to believe that just hours earlier in an Instagram post Strings had candidly admitted to overwhelming pangs of anxiety. Noting that he and his band have been on tour for 10 weeks and he was feeling the grind, he wrote that the anxiety “comes out of nowhere and sometimes knocks me down.”
“Lots of weight on my shoulders and lots of moving around,” he wrote. “Every day is a grind but I’m grateful for all of it.”
The post quickly turned into a love letter to his fans for their support. “I just want to say thank you soo much for all the love. …. The second I walk on stage and see all of your smiles and you send your love up to us it washes it all away. … Thank you for the support and for understanding that I’m a human. I love y’all so much.”
The feeling is more mutual than Strings might understand. From the front of the stage to the back of the room, fans were shouting in glee, dancing, singing, even hugging and high-fiving strangers last night.
It’s a natural phenomenon when Strings and his top-notch band —Billy Failing (banjo), Royal Masat (bass) and Jarrod Walker (mandolin) — perform as passionately and expertly as they do. Strings plays with a ferocity, velocity and virtuosity that is as captivating as anything happening in music today. His heavy metal roots show but so too in his bluegrass does an almost symphonic sound. When the band slides into the groove and trades licks, it’s as close to a Jerry Garcia Grateful Dead bluegrass-jam vibe as you’re likely to hear these days.
One of the keys to Strings’ success is his multigenerational appeal. The Sinclair crowd ran the gamut, and most of the fans I spoke with said this was their first time seeing the phenom, but they made it sound like a suddenly urgent need. A random search of social media posts in the wake of Billy Strings tour stops reveals superlatives such as “Greatest show I’ve ever seen!” and “We should probably acknowledge that this guy is the greatest [expletive] guitar player of all time, right?” A fan at last night’s show greeted Strings this morning with this post: “I woke up crying so happy to witness this night.” And, well, no less an authority than 14-time Grammy winner Jerry Douglas has called him “the future of bluegrass.” That’s some mighty heady praise, but the otherworldly guitarist seems up to it.
Last night, Strings and his band played for more than two-and-half hours over two sets. (The audience probably needed the breather as much as the band.) In that second set they were joined by flutist Anh Phung, and the local duo of Stash Wyslouch and Sean Trischka, who opened with their new project Mattie & Debbie. Strings picked up his electric guitar halfway through the set for an impossibly uptempo cover of Jimi Hendrix’ “Fire.”
Other highlights included his originals “Running,” “Away From The Mire” and “Long Forgotten Dream” as well as covers of the Dead (“China Doll”), Townes Van Zandt (“White Freight Liner Blues”), Flatt & Scruggs (“Doing My Time”) Bill Monroe (“I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” and “I Haven’t Seen Mary In Years”) Phish (“Back On The Train”) and, for an encore, an a cappella take on Doc Watson’s “And Am I Born To Die.”
In his pre-show post, Strings had spoken of feeling some of the weight lifting from his shoulders with just seven more gigs to go before returning “#HOME.” He said he looked forward to relaxing and doing something as simple as putting around in his Chevelle, and “maybe go skateboarding or something.”
After a 10-week run he termed “a big one for us literally and figuratively,” it sounds like a welcome reward. Either way, there is probably no slowing his roll.