Review — Billy Strings Turns Fiddler’s Green Into Hallowed Ground

Billy Strings kicked off an incredible two-night run at Fiddler’s Green on Friday. It was one of those shows that just felt right, like the universe perfectly aligned as the sweet early summer breeze blew gently through the night and 17,000 bluegrass fans gave it their absolute all. Billy himself came to play, moving through two sets featuring fan-favorite hits and bluegrass traditionals. It was the kind of concert that shatters your soul, the pieces now half-buried where they fell for you to find again if you feel you need them. But you won’t because now you have room for something new, something so gloriously alive that it’s as if the very essence of music, of creation, now lives within your chest. The show felt like pure light radiating out through this world and its darkness and each in attendance was changed for the better by the performance’s end.

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The show was absolutely packed, Fiddler’s Green filled to bursting with seas of people from all walks of life. This created a rather chaotic vibe on entry. The line was huge but moved fast once doors opened at 6:30. Security staff struggled to keep the line in order, attempting to form multiple single-file lines that just weren’t happening. The venue only has two entrances and they both become these funnels that people fight to get through shoulder to shoulder with those around them. Once inside, this chaos carried over to the vendors and the restrooms, limited as they are. But once people got their drinks and took care of whatever they needed to take care of and made their way to the main area of the venue, the chaos died down as people settled in.

The venue is one giant hill that can wreak havoc on the legs. However, it really is a beautiful place, with the skyline and mountains rising up behind the stage and glowing in the fading sunshine. While spending a few hours dancing on a rather sharp incline can hurt after a while, there is also something sublime about slipping your shoes off and boogieing on those hills, the cool grass tickling your feet as the music propels you forward.

Billy hit right at 8 and wasted no time before launching into “Fire on My Tongue.” The song is an absolute barn burner that set the tone beautifully, letting the crowd know they were in for a heater. The first jam of the night came after the song’s second chorus. It was big and fast and virtuosic, everything that has propelled Billy Strings to the forefront of modern bluegrass. However, it wasn’t too exploratory, just some good old-fashioned shredding to get the night going. The song ended by turning into “Ole Slew Foot” by James Horton and featured Billy doing his iconic extended “Weeeeeelllllllllllll” vocalization that shook the bones and had the audience rattled.

Strings thanked the crowd as the song ended before quickly moving on to the fan favorite “While I’m Waiting Here.” It’s a really gorgeous tune that introduced a nice dynamic to the proceedings but ended with this monstrous jam that featured each band member. Billy was the focal point as he switched his guitar tone from acoustic to electric mid-solo, something he’d continue to do throughout the night.

Strings’s band is immaculate, with each member at the top of their game. In addition to Strings, the band features Billy Failing on banjo, Royal Masat on bass, Jarrod Walker on mandolin, and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle. Strings himself is a once-in-a-lifetime artist, but so is every member of his band. They work together so well, so unselfishly, each ceding time to the other as they create these sonic landscapes that feel like they’ve existed since before the dawn of time. It feels humble despite the sheer amount of talent on display, which builds a feeling of togetherness that pervades any Billy Strings show.

The band moved through “Pyramid Country” and “My Alice” before hitting a huge cover of “Whiskey River,” originally by Johnny Bush and popularized by Willie Nelson. The crowd sang along with open hands raised overhead, the sorrowful drinking tune elevated to something more akin to gospel. This led them to a mountainous “Hellbender” that saw Strings and the rest of the band taking turns shredding with pure, dangerous abandon. The jam gave way to a Royal Masat-led cover of “I’ll Cry Instead” by The Beatles before arriving at the beloved “On the Line.” This ignited the barn yet again as the crowd lit fires within themselves, the cracks in their souls deepening to the point of transformation. The song ended, and after Billy checked on the crowd to ask them how they were doing, the set did as well.

The first set was a thunderstorm, a crack of lightning straight to the hearts of all in attendance. The second set was something else, gentler like light summer rain while still feeling propulsive, a beautiful amalgamation of traditional and absolutely mind-melting. It kicked off with the bluegrass traditional “The Old Mountaineer,” which turned into a cover of the late Jeff Austin’s “Fiddling Around.” The cover saw Alex Hargreaves pushing his instrument to the very limit. This led to “In the Clear” and “Heartbeat of America,” a rollicking yet straightforward tune that evolved into potentially the biggest jam of the night. The jam was ludicrous with each member firing off as Billy ran to the front of the stage, waving his guitar in the wind as he picked at a rate not meant for mortal man. It felt like witnessing something holy, the grounds where the crowd danced consecrated until the end of time.

Following this, the band left the stage, leaving only Billy and a chair for the next four songs. He started this portion off with a cover of Jamey Johnson’s “Lonely at the Top,” a rather mournful tune about the disillusionment that can accompany success. It was a testament to Billy’s awareness of the position he’s in and the almost unprecedented success he’s seen over the last seven or so years. In that relatively short amount of time, he’s solidified himself as something of a legend, a talent that touches this earth only rarely. He’s almost single-handedly brought bluegrass music back into mainstream conversation. His career trajectory has been nothing short of astronomical and with that must come some true discomfort.

It should also bear mentioning the amount of gratitude that radiates from Strings at any of his shows. He loves his fans and how dedicated and fervent they can be and he makes that fact known constantly.

After a cover of “Brown’s Ferry Blues” by The Delmore Brothers, Strings moved into some originals, namely “Catch and Release,” a “talking blues” song based on a fishing trip Strings took with Vince Herman of the beloved Colorado jam-grass band, Leftover Salmon. The song evolved into “Guitar Peace,” a contemplative instrumental that then became “Fearless” by Pink Floyd, which saw the return of the rest of the band, who proceeded to blow the barn doors open once again.

The final songs of the set were ripped apart, tatters in the wind as the band picked at breakneck speed. “Fire Line” became this massive jam that felt like staring directly into a bonfire burning on a cold night. Jarrod Walker really made himself known during this, playing that mando like it owed him money. They hit a meandering cover of Larry Sparks’ “John Deere Tractor” that became a huge “Highway Hypnosis” before ending with the Earl Scruggs tune “Farewell Blues.” The set instilled a deep sense of peace coupled with pure exhilaration regarding the prospect of being alive and its end saw much of the crowd smiling up at the looming moon, stars dripping down their faces.

The encore came quick. Strings came out and asked the crowd if they could do one more before kicking off an extended and rather mind-melting cover of John Hartford’s “All Fall Down.” The song features this crazy scatting technique that Billy was able to achieve while also playing incredibly intricate guitar parts. It felt all-consuming like being wrapped in a kind of cocoon, warm and rich yet incredibly psychedelic. The song ended and Billy told everyone to get home safe so he could see them tomorrow for another (incredible) show. The crowd funneled out, the remains of their old souls left behind and something new growing in their places.

All Photography Courtesy of David Cohn

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