It’s always great to see a performer who you really admire play live after listening to their music for a couple of years. On Thursday, February 16, we ventured down to the Hard Rock Casino in Atlantic City NJ to see Billy Strings and his band at Etess Arena. I’ve been following Billy String’s rise in the bluegrass world for the last couple of years. It parallels my growing interest in Americana, Bluegrass and Country music over this same period. After listening to album cuts and watching videos of live performances, one thing kept coming through: you have to see him live. So when I saw he was playing in Atlantic City for three nights my lovely wife said here’s our chance, let’s get tickets before they sell out. We decided to go on the first night of three shows, figuring Thursday would give us the best chance of getting tickets and we could stay at the casino hotel that night. The venue was pretty cool. The sound was great and they have a really elaborate light show system as well as visual screens on the sides and above the stage. The floor was general admission, but we sat on the side of the venue in assigned seating (when you’re not tall, general admission is hit or miss for getting good visuals).
Let’s talk about the show. It was one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Billy Strings is simply an amazing guitarist. Seeing him play is worth the price of admission by itself. I’m not a top line player, but having played guitar since I was ten I can tell you the amazing amount of skill it takes to play guitar at his level. He’s an out and out flat picking genius. Fast, clean runs within the structure of tight chord patterns. All this is done while keeping the timing spot on – the band has no drummer to follow for timing. It’s all played on acoustic guitar, which is much less forgiving than playing an electric. His playing style doesn’t stick strictly to bluegrass. He also will use a vast array of pedals to alter the basic guitar sound and easily transitions to rock chords and leads. You have to give tremendous credit to his band: Billy Failing on banjo; Jarrod Walker on mandolin; Royal Masat on bass and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle. The entire band can stay with him and everyone takes turns in the spotlight when they go in to an extended jam – which they did frequently. In many ways it felt like a ‘jam band’ show – there are jam bands from almost every style of music. It’s a really appropriate form of playing in the bluegrass genre. Bluegrass started with people getting together on someone’s porch and just playing traditional songs. Everyone took a turn at playing the leads or holding down the background. A very communal feel that you could see at this show. Strings also has a great voice, especially suited for bluegrass style. The other band members vocals were strong and blended perfectly.
Here’s a few photos from the show (note – my photo technique is pretty good with my camera, not so much with my phone – I’ve never bothered to learn how to manual focus etc with the phone, which would of helped here with the distance, low lighting and (ahem) smoke in the arena).
On top of the high level of playing, the band in concert is an endurance-fest. They started at 8:15 and played until 11:45 with a 15 minute mid show break. That’s 3 hours and 15 minutes of playing without a let down in performance! And the level of technique never dropped during the show. The energy remained on full throttle the entire time. My left hand would have fallen off after 30 minutes. Some of the instrumental jams were incredibly long. Not many musicians could pull that off. Here’s some videos from the show to give you a flavor of the event. A lot of String’s performances are documented on line. First we have a long jam session covering two songs where you hear the guitar run from clean through several different effects pedals.
A shorter clip of the song ‘Slow Train’
A great cover of Jackson Browne’s ‘Running On Empty’
I would encourage you to look at some of the other clips on line. All these clips were from the show we attended.
Finally, I don’t think you can talk about a Billy Strings show without talking about the audience. Everyone there was welcoming and friendly. A lot of the audience would be seeing all three nights at the venue and would follow the band to different venues around the country. The best parallel I could make would be to the family of Deadheads that used to follow the Grateful Dead. The people we talked to were happy to bring us first timers in to the fold, eager to talk about the band and the shows, which have different set lists every night, as well as songs being played differently from show to show (special thanks to Danny if he reads this post). Talking to people who were so enthusiastic about the band and the ‘gathering of the tribes’ at the show added a lot to the experience and made the power that can be found in music feel real and immediate. I certainly hope we have the opportunity to see Billy Strings again and be part of that experience.