Billy Strings 2.17.17
Words & Photos by Mitch Melheim
Michigan flat-picking phenom Billy Strings has taken charge and begun to lead the way for a new generation of pickers. His undeniable talent is just one part of the equation. It's his ability to combine an unwavering respect for tradition with his ever-apparent need to push the envelope that sets him apart from the mass of talented young musicians in the scene.
Growing up playing music with his dad’s friends, his affinity for playing traditional bluegrass shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, nor should the fact that he made a name for himself playing in a duo with a well-known mandolin instructor twice his age named Don Julin. The duo parted ways at the end of 2015 and Strings is now touring with a rockin’ four-piece band comprised of guitar, upright bass, banjo, and mandolin.
Strings brought the band to Portland, Oregon for two nights at Bunk Bar, with both nights selling out in advance. After hearing reviews from night one that seemed over the top, if not unbelievable, I was anxious to see for myself come night two.
John Hartford’s “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” opened the show with it’s playfulness and familiarity making it a great opening choice. Once off to a smiling and dancing start, Strings unleashed darkness upon the tiny room with a tumultuous “Shady Grove” that expanded into an extended jam so dark and abrasive that I would feel more comfortable referring to it as metal than bluegrass if it weren’t so fast and stringy.
A pair of Strings originals (“Turmoil & Tinfoil” and the instrumental “Thirst Mutilator”) carried the next segment of the set and led into a cover of the Greensky Bluegrass tune “A Letter To Seymour.” Following “Seymour” was an energetic jam that I could only identify in my notes as “psychedelic ass jam punk rock” and I think that about explains it. The instrumental varied from a frantic sprint to a spun out wander and back again.
Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freight Liner Blues” was a gentle reminder after having my face melted that this guy also has a hell of a voice, a point only further proven by his original tune “Dealing Dispair” that followed. A song inspired by recent unjust events in the country, his disgust is apparent in the refrain, “I just want to blow out your brains.” After the song was over, Strings assured us that he’s normally a peaceful guy.
He utilizes an intriguing blend of genres ranging from punk and heavy metal to the more obvious jam and bluegrass influences. Passion and intensity are two consistently integral parts of the Billy Strings experience. Both of which came to a climax during the set-closing cover of “Little Maggie.” His traditional and progressive tendencies confronted each other during this song as Strings found a way to work it out, weaving creative riffs chock full of effects into the traditional song that proved to be the exclamation point on a great evening of music.