The force of nature that is Billy Strings and his touring band hit London for the first time, with two sold-out nights at Islington Assembly Hall, and a buzz of anticipation was evident in the long admission line outside on Upper Street for the opening Saturday night show. A quick guess from overheard conversations suggested at least 50% of the audience were fans from the USA, many regulars at his live shows, with one claiming more than 40 under his belt.
So the massive welcome that erupted as Strings and his band hit the stage was no surprise and the high-intensity set that followed, in two halves with a brief interval to draw breath, served to cement his reputation as one of the great live acts on the circuit. A passing comment in a pre-show conversation suggested that Strings would play a totally different set the following night, and a quick online setlist check confirmed that to be the case–indeed, it was claimed he could play every night for a week and not repeat a song.
The line up of Strings’ band speaks bluegrass. There’s Strings on guitar and vocals, along with long-time touring bandmates, Billy Failing (banjo and vocals), Royal Masat (bass and vocals) and Jarrod Walker (mandolin and vocals), but his set showcased how he takes his trademark blend of original songs and covers from a variety of genres to a different place, part of the wider genre of jamgrass, but with Strings’ guitar at the fore. Although playing an acoustic guitar throughout, his effects pedals effortlessly converted this to a full on axe sound, complete with wah wah when required, giving the extended jam tracks such as ‘Ernest T. Grass‘ the impact of an extra instrumentalist.
The band traded solos throughout, keeping the energy levels high, though Strings joked towards the end of the first half that “We’re just getting warmed up!” His latest album ‘Renewal’ featured prominently in the set, notably on back to back versions of ‘Hide and Seek’–one of several 10 minute plus numbers–and ‘Love and Regret’, with ‘The Fire on My Tongue’ opening the second set, a classic bluegrass crowd pleaser, ‘Ice Bridges’ and ‘Fire Line’ being the other ‘Renewal’ tracks featured.
Strings’ sets have always highlighted his wide range of musical influences and this was no exception, ranging from John Hartford’s ‘All Fall Down’ to Pink Floyd’s ‘Brain Damage’, the former with more than a hint of funk in the band’s arrangement.
Front and centre throughout is Strings’ exceptional guitar picking. While rooted in lightning fast bluegrass he displayed elements of jazz, rock, blues and even some Allman-esque guitar licks circa their 1974 ‘Jessica’ era. Dancing around the stage joyfully, the consummate showman, the sheer love he has for his special brand of music shone through throughout.
Don’t miss him when he tours the UK in December, with gigs in London, Manchester and Glasgow.