By Matt Wickstrom
Bluegrass star Billy Strings kicked off his virtual, nine-date “Streaming Strings” tour last night from the Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville with a fiery, two-set performance full of breakout jams, crazy covers and a special guest appearance from Marcus King, who earlier this week played the first show of his own virtual concert series, the next of which will feature Strings as a guest along with Maggie Rose on July 20.
Strings was joined throughout the show by his all-star band of Billy Failing on banjo, Royal Masat on bass and Jarrod Walker on mandolin, all of whom first took to the Brooklyn Bowl stage donning medical grade face masks before ripping them off and ripping into the dark and dreary “Watch It Fall” from Strings’ highly regarded album Home. The song opened with String’s high-pitched howls proclaiming “Well it’s not so easy now / Though it never was back then / We still can’t seem to work this out / But you can still pretend” in the song’s opening verse—words many can relate to currently as the U.S. struggles in it’s faceoff with COVID-19.
“Watch It Fall” was succeeded by the high-strung ballad concerning love lost, “Slow Train,” and the sad prison stories of “While I’m Waiting Here,” all the while Strings’ soothing vocal demeanor providing a sort of solace between the listener and the sorrow of the songs themself.
The opening trio of songs yielded to a run of covers including Flatt & Scruggs’ “Doin’ My Time,” Chris Smith’s 1911 penned blues-turned-bluegrass jam “Fishing Creek Blues” and trippy, drawn out “China Doll” from the Grateful Dead that saw Strings’ unleash an epic pedal effect transforming his acoustic guitar into a piece of electrified musical artillery.
Following “China Doll” Strings gave way to the other Billy, banjoist Billy Failing, handing him the steering wheel on vocals for his own “How Many Miles” before turning back to three Strings’ originals—”Dealing Despair,” “Enough to Leave” and “Away From The Mire” prior to a brief intermission allowing both the band and fans at home a moment to catch their breathes.
Following the break Strings and company returned to the Brooklyn Bowl stage with one of Strings’ oldest, and perhaps his most popular song, “Dust in a Baggie,” ahead of “Pyramid Country” and of a cover of J.J. Cale’s 1976 hit “Ride Me High.”
After cutting up “Must Be Seven” Strings welcomed special guest Marcus King for the stage, diving into “Summertime,” a song composed in 1934 by George Gershwin for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, with Strings and King wielding dueling acoustics. Strings then passed the torch to King, who took over on vocals for a cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” before parting from the stage for the evening.
With King gone, Strings and the band kept the instrumental intensity at a high with banjo great Sammy Shelor’s grand instrumental “Ernest T Grass” before capping the night off with a rendition of The Stanley Brothers’ “Little Maggie,” yet another song equally showing off both String’s vocal and picking prowess that has garnered him high praise all-around and an avid fan base in what is sure to be a lengthy and lofty musical career still currently in it’s infancy.
One of the evening’s coolest elements was how Strings’ team and the Brooklyn Bowl covered the venue’s walls in projection screens broadcasting fans dancing and listening in from home through Zoom’s video conferencing software, giving the space just a small feel of normalcy during a time that is anything but. However, even though Strings was pleased to see them he was sure voice his excitement on fans returning to shows in-person in the (hopefully) near future rather than just virtually.
“We really hope we can bring [music] to you in-person sometime soon but for now this is the best we can do,” said Strings. “We thank you for giving us the opportunity to play for you.”
“This place doesn’t smell like our normal gig,” Strings joked. “Its smells far too clean, and it doesn’t smell like hippies enough. I can’t wait to come back to this room when it’s full of sweaty hippies. That’s gonna be a great time.”
Billy Strings 7/16/20 @ Brooklyn Bowl Nashville set list
Watch it Fall
While I’m Waiting Here
Doin’ My Time (Flatt & Scruggs cover)
Fishing Creek Blues (Chris Smith cover)
China Doll (Grateful Dead cover) —>
So Many Miles (Billy Failing on vocals) —>
Enough to Leave
Away From The Mire
Dust in a Baggie
Pyramid Country —>
Ride Me High (J.J. Cale cover)
Must Be Seven
Summertime (George Gershwin cover) ^
Big Boss Man (Jimmy Reed cover) ^
Ernest T Grass (Sammy Shelor cover) —>
Little Maggie (Stanley Brothers cover)
^ = w/Marcus King