Atlantic City can seem a little bit more south than Jersey and when Billy Strings brought his bluegrass tour to town for three nights last week, fans of the genre sprouted like seedlings.
Strings, the 30-year-old who I have heard more than twice described as “hottest thing in bluegrass,” was born William Lee Apostol and has been on a cross-country tear since releasing his Grammy-award-winning “Home” in 2019.
Luckily, a friend of the blog Paul Dixon sent me a link to Strings’ live performances during the Covid-19 pandemic and he caught me in his web.
His third album “Renewal” released in 2021 has been his best work despite losing the Grammy award. His most recent release “Me/And/Dad” recorded with his bluegrass-playing father Terry Barber who was a large influence on his style, was released earlier this year.
It wasn’t long after that I saw people at Phish run of beach concerts in Atlantic City wearing Billy Strings gear and heard more about how his live performance has taken on elements of the jam band’s party ensemble despite his pledge of sobriety.
There were plenty of familiar faces from Phish and the Dead and Company shows when I stepped into Hard Rock Live Thursday, Feb. 16. Among them was @DeadBrickHead who I ran into on Shakedown Street in Philadelphia last summer and was again giving away his homemade pins.
When Strings stepped onto the stage with his bandmates – mandolin player Jarrod Walker, bass player Royal Masat, banjo player Billy Failing and fiddle player Alex Hargreaves the crowd’s response sounded like it may topple over the slightly guitarist.
He stepped to the microphone and played a quick lick and said “Thank you, guitar,” and gave a nod to the hometown crowd with “Roving Gambler,” written by Jimmie Rodgers and performed by The Stanley Brothers.
The band really took off for the second song “Turmoil and Tinfoil” where Walker showed his chops and Strings stepped center stage and bent his notes like he was playing an electric guitar in front of his all-acoustic band.
I was close enough to the stage on the floor that I could see his lips moving like Keith Jarrett as he was soloing and almost singing the notes as he was playing them.
Strings asked if the crowd was ready to get rough and rowdy with him that night as the band dove into another cover by Rodgers – “My Rough and Rowdy Ways.”
Strings and the band played to the Phish and Dead-loving crowd while teasing tracks like “Bathtub Gin” and “Feel Like A Stranger” by the respective bands during its extended jams.
There were plenty of tie-dye shirts and dreadlocks scattered throughout the show as well as folkies and country-music fans who traveled near and far to fill the Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena.
There were some Dead-like moments during some dark spacey jams as well as nods to Frank Zappa and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio throughout the evening. There was even some hair metal moments with Strings twirling his golden locks while picking his guitar.
The band was loud but not overpowering with some fun acoustic effects that made Masat’s double bass sound twice as big and although the band slows down like a Mustang at a red light it really has its full effect when performing at top speed.
The highlight of my night was an unexpected cover of Jackson Browne‘s “Running On Empty,” a song I have never danced so hard to in my life before.
I was equally delighted when the band played burned through “Hide and Seek,” one of my favorite tracks on “Renewal” which extended well past the 10-minute mark.
Before starting the encore, Strings, who was shy but friendly with the crowd, said, “We got time for one more and two more nights after that.” Then, the band dove into a Charlie Poole cover of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.”
Thanks to the incredible musicianship of Billy Strings, the band lit up Atlantic City for three nights in February including a sell-out Friday night show.
Don’t miss Billy Strings on his winter tour and get his latest album “Me/And/Dad” via his website.
1. Roving Gambler
2. Turmoil and Tinfoil
3. The Fire On My Tongue
5. Bound To Ride
6. Slow Train
7. All Of Tomorrow
8. Taking Water
9. Ice Bridges
10. My Rough and Rowdy Ways
11. Pyramid Country
12. Little Maggie
1. Working On A Building
2. Heartbeat Of America
3. In The Morning Light
4. Red Daisy
5. Lincoln River
6. Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine
7. Fire Line
8. Thirst Mutilator
9. Dealing Despair
10. Enough To Leave
11. Running On Empty
12. Cold Cold World
13. Hide and Seek
2. Ole Slewfoot
3. The Gold Rush