The last time we covered Billy Strings it was for the December 2019 run at the Ogden Theatre. Back then, that show was a major step-up for the band. Fast forward to three years and a Grammy win later, and it’s sweet to remember how impressive William Apostol’s quick come-up to a sold-out three nights at the Ogden seemed to be. This past weekend, the incendiary guitarist, who has surpassed all odds and created a league of his — not just in the bluegrass world but as a national act — made his headlining debut at the 1st Bank Center for three sold-out and absolutely raging nights of music.
The quick rise to national acclaim for Billy Strings, also known as William Apostol, is unsurprising and yet fairly unprecedented within his genre, having moved onto larger audiences and bigger venues than most of his bluegrass counterparts. Apostol, who is supported by a crew of equally impressive musicians — banjoist Billy Failing, upright bassist Royal Masat and mandolinist Jarrod Walker — has rounded out the band’s sound with the addition of fiddle virtuoso Alex Hargreaves. The original foursome, though capable of filling a room all on their own, felt whole, complete, and ready to take on the 6,500-person venue on Friday night.
With a handful of albums under their belts and a healthy catalog of original tunes to pick from, the band had no problem filling six sets of music across three nights. Mixed in with the original songs, however, came a number of covers that Apostol put his own creative spin on, making them sound brand new and fresh with each time played.
These are things the oldest Billy Strings fans know, while new fans are quickly catching on with each show played and each single released. Quick to decategorize themselves by including a diverse array of influences into their sound, the band’s musical diversity is reflected in their exponentially growing fanbase, bringing in fans from all walks of musical preferences.
On Friday night, therefore, the 1st Bank Center was abuzz with the eccentricity of a hugely eclectic group with all different types of concert-going backgrounds. Through his rise to stardom, Apostol has stayed humble, grateful and full of love, and those vibes were reverberated throughout the audience as folks smiled, hugged and made fast friends with their crowdmates.
Three monitors — one above, one on each side — was a welcome feature for those far back enough to not have a clear shot of the band, giving every single fan the opportunity for an unobstructed view. As the lights went down, the five players took their spots on stage and the first few chords were struck. From then on, the vibrantly high energy of the crowd was palpable to the farthest back corners of the room.
Opening night one with “Highway Hypnosis” was an apt choice — “I’ve got to do my time with this old guitar of mine/ White line fever leads me to the show” — and kicked off a slew of new originals, throwback tunes and beloved covers. The set saw Billy Strings’ originals including “Must Be Seven” and “Taking Water” from the 2019 album Home, and “Show Me the Door” and “Hide and Seek” from the 2021 album Renewal. The lyrical shift in “Gone a Long Time” gave a shout-out to Denver and received an applause from the crowd, followed by more highlights — renditions of David Grisman’s “Key Signator” and the old-time banjo tune “Rueben’s Train,” which uproariously closed out the first set.
The set break was abuzz with eager excitement for more, and the second set gave Apostol a chance to show off his talent as a solo artist and lone guitarist. With just himself, a guitar, a stool and 6,500 adoring fans, he ran through “Mackinac Rag,” “Catch and Release,” a well-timed “Groundhog,” “Brown’s Ferry Blues” and “Guitar Peace” before asking the band to rejoin him onstage. Home‘s “Away from the Mire” and “Long Forgotten Dream,” Renewal‘s “Red Daisy,” and “On the Line” and “Pyramid Country” from the 2017 album Turmoil and Tinfoil were more of the epic originals the band took us through during the second set.
Gospel-grass came to play with a cover of Hot Rize’s “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” followed by a nostalgic moment from the band. An ode to both an old friend and a legendary mandolinist, Billy Strings gave a rendition of the late Jeff Austin’s “Run Down” that showcased the tight-knit community that is the bluegrass world.
More Billy-fied covers would follow, with versions of “The Old Mountaineer” and “Little Maggie,” the latter of which saw Apostol showing off the belting capabilities of his vocal cords. One last rendition of the traditional bluegrass song “Katy Daley” was well-chosen as the encore and was completed to the sound of a joyous uproar from the crowd, anxious for two more nights of all things Billy Strings.