Bluegrass is one of the most popular genres of music that still has fierce gatekeepers and rules—all of which Billy Strings has made his name disregarding. The attitude is evidently paying off.
While most touring acts were just starting to tentatively book dates over the summer (if at all), the 29-year-old fingerpicking whiz said “pandemic shmandemic”; his sold-out Wednesday night gig at the Riverside Theater was his 75th of 2021 (after taking most of 2020 off touring like everybody else). The Recording Academy doesn’t necessarily care much about the rules, either, having awarded Strings a Best Bluegrass Album Grammy for his 2019 album Home. So much for purism!
Strings and his band (Billy Failing on banjo, Royal Masat on bass, Jarrod Walker on mandolin) set up onstage in the traditional array. “Good evening, folks, I’m Harry Styles,” quipped Strings, following some guitar tuning and gruff introductory yodeling. The group chose the easy route to a crowd-pleasing Wednesday night, opening their show with Jerry Lee Lewis’ “What Made Milwaukee Famous.” Like most modern string bands, these guys are known for playing a lot of covers, and only nine of the 21 songs they played were Strings originals. By the time they’d wrapped up the opener, the entire theater was thick with smoke. As if on cue, Strings led into a fan-favorite oldie of his own, “Dust In A Baggie.”
Most of the first set felt like any old nu-grass show, aside from the somewhat bizarre lighting scheme that featured what looked like giant LED glowsticks hanging from the rafters, and not much else. During the traditional number “Red Rocking Chair,” the music got subtle and atmospheric; then Strings electrified his guitar and cranked the distortion, sounding for all the world like something out of Seattle circa 1992 for about 30 seconds before bursting back into regular acoustic bluegrass again. It seemed like a terrible idea on paper, yet it was kind of a sonic thrill.
Strings pulled off a couple of full-on electric shredfests during the set, incorporating these into otherwise basic acoustic jams to impressive effect. He also managed another Milwaukee lyrical reference via Gordon Lightfoot’s “10 Degrees And Getting Colder.” Then there was the almost possessed chanting of “Follow me down to the riverside” (a nod to fellow grass superstars Yonder Mountain String Band) during the wide-ranging and intense set-closer “Turmoil And Tinfoil.” We half expected him to return to the stage in a black cape and face paint.
Following intermission, the toggling between acoustic and electric did start to feel a little gimmicky; there’s no questioning Strings’ dexterity or charisma, but he remains fairly well boxed into the set of his influences, lacking in distinctive style. Cumulatively, especially as the light show got more involved/distracting, it started to feel as if you were sitting around a campfire having a chill night and some ’80s bar-band showoff kept barging in. But Strings wisely laid off for most of the second set and focused on bread-and-butter old-timey stuff with only mild electrified flourishes. He did save one more epic jam for the set-closer, “Hide And Seek,” once again returning to the same Yonder Mountain tease for another big, memorable climax.
For anyone still feeling a tad unfulfilled after the previous night’s Riverside concert, Strings capped the night with the Bob Dylan singalong you’ll never get at a Bob Dylan show, “Tangled Up In Blue,” utilizing the sinister any-song-can-be-made-into-bluegrass principle.
At this point, Strings has ridden pure dazzling skill combined with the novelty of his heretical hybrid approach—and perhaps his boyish good looks— to fame. Whether he has innovation or exploration in him remains to be seen, but he clearly does his homework and knows how to read the room.