For Celesta Billeci, the intrepid director of UCSB’s Arts & Lectures program, the choice for this fall was plain, and dramatic. “Innovate or hibernate? That’s the decision we faced,” she said recently on, where else, Zoom. In a fall season during which many arts organizations are choosing the latter, closing up shop and attempting to wait out the pandemic, Arts & Lectures will forge ahead with a full calendar of online events they are calling House Calls. Determined to bring the program’s avid constituency the kind of world-class talent they are used to, Arts & Lectures has scheduled some of the most exciting musicians, authors, and theater artists alive in a sequence of events that’s thoughtful and exhilarating. 

House Calls commences with a one-two punch of great music from artists Billy Strings, at 5 p.m. on Thursday, September 24, and Jason Isbell, at the same time on Thursday, October 1. Both of these men will be performing live from their home studios in Nashville, and together they promise to explore the deep feelings and intense focus we are all bringing to our national identity at this moment.

Billy Strings | Credit: Jesse Faatz

At 27, Strings is already one of the most respected guitarists in bluegrass, but listening to his most recent album, the fittingly titled Home, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s that and a whole lot more. Strings grew up playing acoustic guitar alongside his dad, but he says he didn’t really begin to perform his music until he joined a metal band in high school and got onstage to do some serious head banging. While the metal influence on his recorded music has waned, he’s kept the urge to take his music to unexpected places and to put his whole self into the act.

The 14 songs on Home are so generous and varied it almost feels like a double album, with traditional bluegrass numbers (legend Jerry Douglas shows up on a pair) vying for attention with electric-guitar-driven psychedelia. The whole thing comes together thanks to Strings’s voice, in both senses, as a singer and as a songwriter. He writes a lot, frequently collaborating with other Nashville denizens such as Lindsay Lou and Ronnie McCoury, and his songs capture something at once personal and universal. 

If you haven’t listened to bluegrass in a while, or if you think you know what contemporary bluegrass is all about, give this a chance; you’ll be glad you did. And while you are at it, order some supper from The Lark to go with the concert. Acme Hospitality is collaborating with Arts & Lectures on a special menu designed to complement the performance that includes either Slow Cooked St. Louis Ribs or Farro and Pole Beans as the main course. The meal package, which is available for preorder and pickup, feeds two people, so you can have both.

Jason Isbell | Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

One week later, the second House Calls concert features four-time Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Jason Isbell in an intimate format that will conclude with a post-concert Q&A session. As anyone who has followed Isbell’s recent development can attest, there’s no better songwriter on the planet right now. He wrings more out of the verse-chorus-verse routine than seems possible, and then he does it again, No doubt there will be thousands of Isbell fans logging on to this show from all over the country and the world, and in the process, they’ll be thinking of Santa Barbara, our home sweet house call.

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