Billy Strings arrived for his first ever appearance in Manchester having been preceded by a wave of critical acclaim, rave reviews, and reports of scintillating live shows. Expectations were therefore sky high. Big queues had already developed an hour before doors opened as a long sold-out crowd of 1500 filed into the O2 Ritz early to claim the best vantage points. Playing two sets, with no support act, Billy Strings took to the stage at 8.15pm to a rapturous welcome from a crowd that were clearly determined to have a good time.
Superbly backed by his usual band of Billy Failing (Banjo), Jarrod Walker (Mandolin), Alex Hargreaves (Fiddle) and the splendidly named Royal Masat (Bass), Billy Strings opened up with ‘Must be Seven’ which segued effortlessly into ‘Pyramid Country’ and then Robert Hunter’s ‘Thunder’ all of which blended together into an almighty twenty-five-minute psychedelic bluegrass jam. As well as his bluegrass upbringing, Strings cites the Grateful Dead amongst his many influences and boy did it show. It’s worth pausing at this juncture to emphasise just what a breathtaking opening this was. Strings’ guitar virtuosity was pitched perfectly, always in harmony with the collective band sound rather than dominating or suffocating it. Resisting any temptation towards self-indulgence or showing off, Strings’ technical prowess only ever enhanced his ebullient performance and at no point overshadowed the songs which he was performing. Yes, Strings is a very clever player, but he completely avoids the pitfall of making the show all about that. Instead, he serves up a magnificently varied show that’s just plain good fun.
Following on from his impressive opening salvo, Strings then performed ‘Hello City Limits’ a bluegrass standard most closely associated with Kentucky’s Red Allen. It was a less than subtle message that yes, he can adapt, develop and splice bluegrass music, but Strings was raised on traditional bluegrass, and he can still do it better than almost anyone else you’d care to name. This dual approach is what makes Billy Strings such an important artist. Despite being dismissed by some petty-minded purists, Strings is drawing new audiences to the genre, breathing new life into it, and then gently pointing them to its roots and the music which so inspired him to play.
The first set continued with the fine country balladry of ‘Show Me the Door’ and the instrumental ‘Bronzeback’ before delivering up a glorious version of The Beatles’ ‘Rocky Raccoon’, all of which served to further underline that for Strings, nothing is out of bounds or beyond his reach. The self-written ‘Hollow Heart’ reminded the audience once more of Strings’ bluegrass grounding, sounding for all the world like an established classic. As if to underline this, Strings followed it with Bill Monroe’s ‘Uncle Pen’. The biggest compliment payable to Strings was that there was no discernible difference in quality between his own song and that of the ‘Father of Bluegrass’ himself. The first set then rounded off with a particularly fine rendition of ‘The Fire on My Tongue’. For a wildly enthusiastic audience, close to 70 minutes had just flown by. Strings had more than lived up to his billing, proving to be an impressive, engaging and at times mesmeric performer – and it was only half-time.
The second set began with the pure bluegrass of ‘Taking Water’, ‘Everything’s the Same’ and the recently written ‘My Alice’. Despite, all the rock leanings, hybrid tunes and acoustic wig-outs, it’s hard not see Strings’ greatest strength as his ability to recreate authentic bluegrass music for a new age and a new generation. By way of contrast Strings then went into the ten-minute ‘Heartbeat of America’ the most rock orientated song in the set and one of the few times that the audience’s total captivation began to waver as the elongated electrified guitar solo sailed just a bit too close to that aforementioned borderline, without thankfully crossing it. Covers firstly of Doc Watson’s ‘Streamlined Cannonball’ and then Dock Boggs’ ‘Wild Bill Jones’ quickly restored the faith of any waverers, each played with Strings’ own personal touch and refinement. The woven together ‘Away from the Mire’ and ‘Living Like an Animal’ perfectly demonstrated Strings’ ability to experiment and improvise over his bluegrass foundations. This fusion of styles creates the unique signature sound of conglomerated bluegrass that Billy Strings has virtually trademarked.
The final run in began with ‘This Old World’ and continued through ‘Lumpy, Beanpole and Dirt’ , a song by the excellent Bad Livers who also tried to take bluegrass in new directions in the 1990s in an even more radical way than Strings, but who ultimately fell between the two stools of the purists, who largely hated them, and finding a large enough new audience for their twisted bluegrass sound. It is fitting that Strings is now reviving some interest in their work. Another forebear that Strings has drawn attention to are bluegrass jam band Greensky Bluegrass to whom Strings’ own style owes a great deal. Tonight, he covers their ‘The Reverend’ in between his own ‘Highway Hypnosis’ and the final song of the evening, the wildly received ‘Dust in a Baggie’.
Billy Strings’ audience arrived in high anticipation and with even higher expectations, such was the buzz that currently surrounds his name. The bar had been set high. He cleared it with his first jump in that opening 25 minutes and thereafter the night turned into one big celebratory party. Billy Strings, clearly enjoying himself, is at the top of his game right now – and there was nothing to suggest that he’s likely to come down any time soon.
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