True confession: I am a late adopter of the streaming music scene, reluctant to join the pandemic-necessitated digital surrogate for the live music experience. Billy Strings may have cured me and lured me into the possibilities.
On Thursday, September 24, the 27-year-old Nashville neo-new-bluegrass wizard kicked off UCSB Arts & Lectures’ “House Calls” series, which continuies on Thursday, October 1 with acclaimed Nashville singer-songwriter-picker Jason Isbell). As an epicurean adjunct to this “House Calls” experience, I savored a customized rib dinner from the Lark as companion piece–with gourmet popcorn thrown in. It was a wonderful House Calls version of a night out.
Strings is a triple threat/promise, a strong flat-picker, an engaging songwriter, and an organic stylistic hybridizer—bluegrass roots, psychedelic/jamband asides, touches of metal in the underbrush–without making a pretentious point of it. Check out last year’s vibrantly fine album Home for proof of his cred as a phenom in the making.
On Thursday Strings went whole hog, performing onstage with his crackerjack band, including banjo, mandolin, and acoustic bass. Wise move: people may be growing weary of low-tech streamed living rooms with uneven sound quality. Here, graced with professional stage lighting and production, Strings and company put forth a fetching variation on the prog-bluegrass sound. From the outset, a personalized diversity program ruled, as Strings shifted from bluegrass-y mode to an odd-metered extended jam section, unveiling his unique use of delay and distortion on his Martin guitar.
String’s sensitive balladic side emerged with the sweet “Love Like Me,” before launching into the uptempo burner “Highway Hypnosis.” A speedy trad bluegrass highway section yielded to the middle-section “hypnosis” portion, a psychedelic passage replete with post-“Summer of Love” light show visuals. On cue, they returned to the sprawling land of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. Bluegrass has a new hero, and genre-expander. Hopefully, we’ll share a local venue with the real McCoy before long.
In a charming post-performance Q&A moderated by A&L’s director Celesta Billeci and featuring questions posed by the global online audience, Strings addressed such subjects as his love for artists as disparate as Jimi Hendrix and flatpicking legend Doc Watson, his passion for fishing and music (detailing gearhead specifics about both), the vibe-channeling powers of Lava Lamps, and his enduring love of bluegrass. The former metal/indie band player confessed “I had this realization that bluegrass was my heart and soul. I had this incredible bond with my father through the music. No other music touches me like the Stanley Brothers does. It reminds me of being a youngin,’ before I had a care in the world.”
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