This past weekend, Billy Strings celebrated another massive peak of his ever-expanding career — two sold-out shows at Red Rocks followed by a sold-out show at the Mission Ballroom. We wonder if the latter, which was announced weeks after the Red Rocks double-header, was brought on from overwhelming demand for the now beloved bluegrass star. Regardless, Strings and his four-piece band of immensely talented musicians played with grace and style as they made their rounds through the Front Range.
Red Rocks — Thursday, May 11
It rained, it poured, we raged, and — oh, the boys — how they played. A rare occurrence of nonstop, PNW-style rain descended on the Front Range this week and didn’t bother letting up in time for the kickoff of Billy Strings’ long weekend run on Thursday evening. On the first of Strings’ three nights spanning from Red Rocks to Mission Ballroom, the elements mercilessly made us work for it, big time. Equipped with some creative rain gear — including everything from plastic bags tied around ankles to tent flys being held above heads — the weather was no match for the Billy Strings fan club.
Donning an epic embroidered and asymmetrical coat, Billy Strings’ ensemble let us know a little precipitation was not about to cramp his style. The rest followed suit, with upright bassist Royal Masat sporting a mystifying peacoat, mandolinist Jarrod Walker in his sophisticated sweater, fiddle player Alex Hargreaves’ cowboy chic and banjoist Billy Failing embodying casual Thursdays. Even with his unprecedented rise to fame — despite the fact that he just recorded a song with Willie Nelson and partied with Woody Harrelson at the country legend’s Hollywood Bowl birthday bash just two weeks ago — Billy Strings continues to stay humble and made a point to thank Thursday’s crowd for their love, support and dedication throughout the night.
With several nods to the inclement weather in the set list, Billy Strings led the evening’s music on Gordon Lightfoot’s “Cold on the Shoulder,” Grisman and Garcia’s “Dreadful Wind and Rain,” Blaze Foley’s “Cold, Cold World” and his own revamped recording of “Thunder.” Lovers kissed and friends swooned to “In the Morning Light,” gyrated to “Highway Hypnosis” and crooned along to “Taking Water.” Thursday‘s attendees had the pleasure of hearing the Strings-Nelson collaboration “California Sober” played live for its Colorado debut, followed later by Strings’ infamous belting on The Stanley Brothers’ “Little Maggie.” A timely rendition of Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” closed the evening and solidified the fact that rain or shine, we would have indeed danced all night until the break of dawn.
Mission Ballroom — Saturday, May 13
Fans’ unwavering dedication carried over from Red Rocks to the Mission Ballroom on Saturday. There’s a palpable warmth that develops at Billy Strings shows. It’s a sense of shared appreciation, the knowledge that you’re witnessing one of the greatest musicians alive at the top of his game. This translates into big smiles, full hearts and jokes shared between strangers. It gets into your bones like pouring rain and stays there, allowing you to carry it home to nurture and share the news with those you love most. It’s why fans are willing to stick it out for five hours in nonstop freezing rain and spend weeks chasing down the notoriously difficult-to-find tickets. At the Mission, Strings constantly told the crowd how much they mean to him, thanking them every chance he got and rewarding them with an absolute barn burner of a show.
The first set started with a bang as they ripped into “Fire Line,” a song with a huge chorus that filled the room and led into a massive jam that set the tone for the night. This was followed by a jam-heavy set featuring the fan-favorite vehicle “Thirst Mutilator” as well as the beautiful yet melancholy “Love and Regret.” The rest of the set was filled out by multiple John Hartford covers, including “Steam Powered Aero Plane” and “I’m Still Here,” and ended with a huge rendition of “So Many Miles ” — written by Billy Failing — which featured an “I Can See Clearly Now” tease that had those in the crowd that got dumped on at the Rocks on Thursday smiling.
Throughout the show, Billy demonstrated a notable lack of ego and an infectious sense of playfulness, bending words and scatting, dancing and laughing with a joint hanging from his lips and a knowing smile across his face. The audience can feel just how much he loves what he does and the people he plays with. He gave each member of his band multiple times to shine — occasions they rose to magnificently — each getting a chance to sing, solo, and show off. It speaks to a level of cohesion. Each member is purely dedicated to the music, what they create and build together and share with the world.
The second set began with their version of the bluegrass traditional “The Cuckoo,” which led into “Running” and “While I’m Waiting Here,” a personal favorite. The covers kept coming as the band touched on Willie Nelson’s “Hands on the Wheel” and “Dark Hollow” by Bill Browning and His Echo Boys, a song that was one of the Grateful Dead’s favorite covers. In the midst of all this, they hit the crowd with “Wargasm” and almost burned the venue down in the process.
They ended the set with “Long Forgotten Dream,” which showcased each member beautifully. This ran into “All Fall Down,” another Hartford tune, as the set came to close. They weren’t gone long before returning to perform a quick encore with “Sophronie” by bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin. The show ended but the love didn’t dissipate as hugs were given to new friends and laughter was shared all around.