Billy Strings trapped lightning in a bottle. The 30-year-old is the reigning rock star of bluegrass music. It’s not just because he’s a young guy with long hair, tattoos, and Hardscrabble origins.
Born William Apostle in Lansing, Michigan, he now lives and works in the country music capital of Nashville. And his prowess with his acoustic guitar is breathtaking.
His appeal expanded exponentially in four years, spilling from the jam band circuit into the mainstream. His history in New Orleans marks his meteoric rise.
His first local gig was at Frenchmen street club dba in November 2018. He proceeded to Tipitina’s in his January 2020, after which he spent two nights at the Civic Theater in the Spring of the 2020 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
This year, he headlined the Gentilly stage at Jazz Fest. Seven months later, he returned for his sold-out two-night stand at the University of New Orleans Lakefront his arena on New Year’s Eve weekend.
The floor of the arena is standing room only, and the entire wall is packed. Nightly attendance was reportedly just under 8,000. More than half of the participants were from outside the city. Many people had tickets for both nights. A good number of the men in attendance wore beards and tie-dyes.
Even Strings wore baggy tie-dye pants for their Dec. 30 show. With no opening act and his mother in attendance, he spent nearly three hours on stage, not including a 20-minute intermission. He and his four bandmates touched on 29 songs that night, often uninterrupted as he rolled from one song to the next.
The next night, they played the late Texas singer-songwriter Blaze Foley’s ‘Rudee Down in New Orleans’, Pearl Jam’s ‘Woman Behind a Counter in a small town’ and, at midnight, the Doc Watson family. “Ridin’ That Midnight Train”. Both shows he was streamed live on nugs.net.
Making New Orleans a New Year’s Eve destination for fans has been so successful that The Strings have already announced plans to return to Lakefront Arena for three days, December 29-31, in the second half of 2023. . Tickets will “eventually” go on sale, according to a message on his Facebook page.
On December 30th, they opened with 35 minutes of uninterrupted music, from the opening salvo of “The Fire On My Tongue” to the uptempo “Must Be Seven” and its roaring chorus, ending with Johnny Horton’s “Ore Thrufoot: At one point during that 35-minute period, Strings managed to make his acoustic guitar sound like Derek Trucks was playing an electric guitar solo.
The crowd happily ran over every peak and valley, cheering each time the musicians started a new song. The strings were played full throttle, his fingers flying up and down the fretboard.
As is standard in bluegrass, strings do not use a drummer. Given the drives inherent in the deal, none were needed. His four members of his band – banjo player Billy Ferring, bassist Royal Massat, mandolinist Jarrod Walker and violinist Alex Hargreaves – are as nimble and rockin’ as he is. I was. Awkwardly split solos passed from one to the next.
Five musicians stood in front of five vertical LED panels swirling in amorphous shapes and graphics. Above them was a large horizontal screen broadcasting close-ups of the musicians, though not as clear as might have been expected.
Rarely did the strings step into the 10-foot-wide empty stage extension that separated the musicians from the audience. Most of the time, he stood among his bandmates, his eyes closed, concentrating on his fingers and their displays of dexterity.
He acknowledged the travel difficulties many of the audience experienced due to the massive airline disruptions last week. “I know you want to come here and watch me play…that’s f— the most important thing in the world.”
The musicians joined in on the relatively slow “Hellbender” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” seamlessly transitioning into a modern bluegrass setting.
A pristine three-part harmony lit up the relatively subdued “Show Me the Door.” Strings customized the opening lines of “I’ll Be Gone A Long Time”. Instead of “heading south to Georgia, four shows in a row,” he sang, “Heading to Louisiana, two shows in a row.” The first set closed with “Thunder,” with lyrics by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and music by Strings.
After the break they returned to work on a pair of methodical string songs. “Know It All,” about learning from your mistakes, and “Taking Water,” a song about the ravages and neglect of time in the narrator’s hometown. By the time they reached the fleet “On the Line” they were cruising at top speed again.
December 30th is the birthday of the late John Hartford, an acclaimed bluegrass banjo player, fiddler and composer. As a tribute, the Strings covered Hartford’s “I’m Still Here” and “Steam Powered Aereo Plane.”
Strings is still a fresh success and awe-inspiring. “I hit the road in 2012 and haven’t lifted my head since,” he gushed towards the end of the night. I can never truly explain….I will never stop playing music for you.”
The music never seemed to stop that night.
But finally, the quintet ignites Blaise Foley’s “Let Me Ride In Your Big Cadillac,” followed by a speeding up cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” turning John Fogerty’s head rotated.
“Proud Mary” contained the final local reference to the night Billy Strings staked his claim to New Orleans’ new New Year’s Eve tradition.