Words by: Erika Rasmussen
Photos by: Jerry Friend
Music is an ever-changing landscape, especially with visionaries like Billy Strings reinventing the game for Bluegrass and live music itself. One constant of music, though, is that it is a healing balm that I needed more than ever this week. Billy, accompanied by his exceptionally talented band members - Billy Failing on banjo, Alex Hargreaves on fiddle, Royal Masat on bass, and Jarrod Walker on mandolin - graced the stage at the Greensboro Coliseum on Wednesday, December 6, delivering a musical journey that redefined the boundaries of bluegrass. They may still lack percussion, as a traditional bluegrass band should, but this ain't your grandpa's bluegrass. With Billy Strings at the helm, handling guitar and lead vocals, the ensemble created an atmosphere of innovation and tradition, showcasing their collective virtuosity.
I was lucky enough to go to the show with two of my very favorite people, but as luck would have it, they had seats and I had pit tickets. I wandered into the pit and found a comfy spot to enjoy the night from the back. Per the usual show magic, I recognized the couple next to me from an unforgettable evening with Empire Strikes Brass on my birthday last year. We danced the night away again at Billy Strings, once more proving that you're never alone at a really good show. The night commenced with the energetic "On the Line," after a captivating fake-out intro of "Must Be Seven." The timeless Osborne Brothers were represented with a cover of their song, "Ruby Are You Mad" before the Strings original, "My Alice". Both are toe-tappin' fun songs.
As the concert unfolded, Strings and his band delved into the rich tapestry of bluegrass classics and original compositions. The light show and onstage gear are scaled-down compared to most modern coliseum shows, but the live video on the big screens offered inventive visuals of the action that are the perfect accompaniment to the evening. The emotionally charged "Greenville Trestle High," a tune of Doc Watson's, resonated through the venue, with Hargreaves' fiddle adding a soulful layer to the narrative. The song opines "But the whistles don't sound like they used to. Lately not many trains go by. Hard times across the land. Mean no work for the railroad man. And the Greenville trestle now don't seem so high." This beautiful song about the passing of time has only been played once before during the March show in Winston-Salem, also in honor of Doc Watson in our home state.
The traditional "The Cuckoo" led into "Long Forgotten Dream" and "Away From the Mire", which will always remind us of the epic "Away From the Shire" Halloween shows in the western end of our fair state last year. The set ended with "Bronzeback" (an instrumental), the traditional "Little Maggie", only the third occurrence ever of the instrumental "Escanaba", and a hot "Fire Line" that rolled into Pearl Jam's "In Hiding" in a new way.
The second set kicked off with the Stanley Brothers' "Love Me Darlin', Just Tonight" (only played 4X before) and featured a diverse selection of songs, each member of the band contributing their unique flair to create a harmonious blend of sound. The powerful "Wargasm" sings "same shit different century, here we go again" as Billy tires of the old and is always creating the new. "Southern Flavor" highlighted Hargreaves' fiddling prowess and the seamless interplay between band members.
Strings and his band navigated through classics like "Tennessee Stud", "The Fire on my Tongue", Jack Bonus' "The Hobo Song", and the introspective "Be Your Man". Even the tender lyrics like those in this last tune are a sign of how Billy is a modern, vulnerable romantic: "If I could go back to the days when I was young, I'd travel the whole world over and then some, And I'd come back to you with an everlasting lily in my hand, And I'd show the world just what it means to me, for me, to get be your man." The instrumental "Northern White Clouds" allowed the ensemble to shine individually, demonstrating their instrumental mastery.
"California Sober" references Billy's friend, Willie Nelson, and waves the flag of the new culture of pot acceptance in pop culture. Pot culture, if you will. Next, we were treated to a blazing cover of Gordon Lightfoot's thoughtful "10 Degrees & Getting Colder" for the first time this year and then the Strings classic, "Turmoil & Tinfoil". The set concluded with the band delivering a captivating outro that playfully teased Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again," leaving the audience in high spirits.
For the encore, Strings first took the stage solo, presenting a moving acapella rendition of "And Am I Born to Die?" The absence of instrumental accompaniment allowed Strings' raw vocal talent to take center stage, creating an intimate and poignant moment. This 1700s hymn also happened to be a touching tribute (for me) to my dear sweet dog, Mr. Charlie, whom I peacefully laid to rest this week. These whistles won't ever sound like they used to, for me, but being able to spend such a magical evening in a welcoming environment like this made the transition just a little easier.
As the concert drew to a close with the reflective "Cabin Song," Strings and his band members took their final bows, leaving an indelible impression on the Greensboro Coliseum and its audience.
In a world where everything is changing, Billy Strings and his band are not just preserving the tradition of bluegrass but reshaping its future. The infusion of innovation, the playful nods to other musical genres, and the individual brilliance of each band member make Billy Strings a driving force in the evolution of live music. The Greensboro Coliseum became a melting pot of musical exploration, a testament to the new world that Strings and his ensemble are creating within the realm of bluegrass.