Written By Jeff Modzelewski
Early on during Billy Strings‘ sold out 2-set performance at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, while mandolinist Jarrod Walker took a solo during “All of Tomorrow,” I was watching Billy gently keeping rhythm on his guitar and I couldn’t help but get the impression that his instrument was swallowing him. William Apostol, aka Billy Strings, isn’t a big guy, and, despite his tremendous skill, he’s able to fall into the background when other members of his band step into the spotlight. Watching him, a question came into mind. Is Billy going to be swallowed up by this moment? A packed venue near the end of a sold-out tour, likely the last one he’ll be doing in smaller venues like this one for the foreseeable future, will this prodigy rise to the task and live up to all of the accolades that have been heaped on him? As the show ended nearly 2 1/2 hours later and I attempted to locate my jaw that had fallen to the floor, I realized that I should have known better than to question Billy and his band. Everyone who came to this show came in with high expectations, expecting something special, and I can’t imagine that anyone left the Beachland Ballroom that night any less than completely satisfied.
Trying to point out highlights of the show wouldn’t make much sense, as nearly every song had something to impressive or exceptional. The interplay between the members was solid, the pacing of the show was great, and the way they were able to tackle a variety of styles showed the depth of skill these guys have. The show opened with a 5 song run that included a pair of instrumentals, one of Billy’s trademark songs in “Dust In A Baggie,” and a cover of John Hartford‘s “I’m Still Here.” What really struck me with this opening run was the way the band adjusted their styles to fit the theme of each song. You can’t play the same type of solo on the instrumental “Thirst Mutilator” as you can on an instrumental version of “Last Train To Clarkesville.” The songs are too different. But the band used their instruments to truly speak to the song and the style they were going for.
Despite their penchant for lightning-fast picking, what stood out during the first set were the various moods the songs cast. Transitioning the drug-and-prison memoir of “Dust In A Baggie” directly into “I’m Still Here” had a clear message to it. Later on the band went from a beautiful version of “All Of Tomorrow” into the very dark “Pretty Daughter.” While Billy didn’t bring out the electric guitar at all that evening, that didn’t stop him from adding some distortion and effects to his instrument, starting with a solid solo on “Doin’ Things Right.” Newer songs such as “Taking Water” and “Hollow Heart” also gave the band opportunities to shine. Clearly there’s a lot of love for this new material and it came through in the playing.
The buzz during set break was electric throughout the Beachland, with the crowd anxious to get the band back on stage. After an on-fire first set, they didn’t disappoint in the second half of the show. Things did get off to a bit of a rough start with a flub on “Watch It Fall,” although overall the song was well received. The band didn’t let that slow them down, however, and things really kicked off with a cover of Leftover Salmon‘s “Down In The Hollow.” This was just another example of how the band is able to offer their own take on both classic and modern bluegrass, something that was shown throughout the night. Whether it’s new takes on the classic “Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine” or covering current generation jamgrass, the band doesn’t shy away from putting their own stamp on everything they touch.
Vocally the band was excellent, but I was truly enjoying the instrumental interplay in the second set. The instrumental “Road To Columbus” was a great classic back-and-forth between the instruments, with everyone on stage taking their own shot with the riff before diving into a much more modern jam. “Highway Hypnosis” had a similar feel, with a traditional structure before the band moved into the jam in the second half of the song. It’s interesting to see everyone, particularly Billy himself, adding pedal effects to the music. Luckily the effects don’t overtake the song, and the playing itself stands out all on its own. The band had a solid run that included a great version of “Old Home Place” and a sentimental “Love Like Me” before closing out with an absolutely massive “Black Clouds.” Watching the band take a song that is so associated with a legendary jam band like The String Cheese Incident and jamming it out in a way that is all their own was another example that confirmed for me what this band is all about. There were multiple peaks in the jam, they strayed far from the original structure, and they brought it all back successfully in the end. For the encore the band gathered around a single microphone for a gentle take on “Here Comes The Sun,” which gave the audience one last time to catch their breath and enjoy the tremendous range of this group.
Every time I’ve seen Billy Strings I’ve gone in with high expectations, and every time Billy and the band have exceeded them. Everyone at this show came in hoping for something special, for one of those magical live music moments that stay with you. I can’t imagine that anyone left disappointed. The crowd, the band, the energy, everything about the show made for an amazing night. I don’t know what the future holds for Billy Strings but I know that they have everything they need to continue delivering these types of experiences for fans for a long time to come.