Billy Strings & Sammy Brue 11.1.18

Portland, OR
Revolution Hall

Words by Mitch Melheim
Photos by Coleman Schwartz Media

Less than two years ago, Billy Strings was playing a small bar in Portland named Bunk Bar, known more as a sandwich shop than a music venue. In fact, it was the first and only time I’ve ever seen a concert there. Twenty months later, he returns to town for his first headlining performance since and sells out the 850-person Revolution Hall on a weekday with Greensky Bluegrass playing just a mile away. This about sums up the fiery and flamboyant picker’s rapid rise toward the upper echelon of his genre. Never have I seen a bluegrass (or jam) musician catch on so quickly with the masses. It is unprecedented, yet well-deserved.

Opening the night was seventeen year-old singer/songwriter, Sammy Brue, who Rolling Stone recently labeled an “Americana prodigy.” At eleven years old, Brue was already sharing the stage with artists like Lucinda Williams and Asleep at the Wheel. In the years since, he has toured and recorded with Justin Townes Earle and was even featured on the cover of Earle’s Single Mothers record.

Brue was backed by a minimalist two-piece band that tastefully accented his scintillating story telling. The setlist was comprised almost entirely of original songs except for a noteworthy cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” The best part of his whole set, or perhaps the entire night as it only continued once Billy Strings stepped on stage, was the predominantly older audience looking at each other in awe of what these young kids were able to pull off.

Strings & company didn’t ease into anything, opening with the blazing instrumental, “Pyramid Country,” and segueing directly into “Little Maggie.” Strings’ prison love song “While I’m Waiting Here” followed and is one of the better examples of his surprisingly great songwriting ability. Gaining popularity early on due only to sheer talent, mainly playing covers and bluegrass standards, it wasn’t until he finally released his debut album, Turmoil & Tinfoil, that the bluegrass world found out how good of a songwriter he was.

“Slow Train” and “Thirst Mutilator” went on to highlight the middle of the first set, with the latter bringing the most energy. That was until the set finale of Johnson Mountain Boys’ “Unwanted Love” and “Turmoil & Tinfoil,” the title track on Strings’ debut album. “Tinfoil” all but defines the Billy Strings sound. A little bit bluegrass, a little bit psychedelic, and above all else, dark as hell.

“Paul & Silas,” the Josh White tune made famous by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, provided the most excitement in the first half of set two with Strings’ ominous social commentary on “Dealing Despair” a close second. The Grateful Dead’s “China Doll” then took the show into a decidedly psychedelic direction and would’ve easily been the jam of the night if it weren’t for the always-raging “Meet Me at the Creek” that came later on. The “China Doll” performance was special though because it showed how Strings can play slow, emotional music just as well as he can rip it. In my opinion, that made this the most impressive display of music I saw from him all night.

“Dust In a Baggie,” the first original tune most people heard from Strings and still the catchiest to this day, came toward the end of the set and eventually led to an “On The Line” encore. “On The Line” is his 2018 version of “Eyes of the World,” speaking on behalf of a misunderstood generation’s lifestyle. The way he weaves these meaningful songs in and out of face-melting jams and deep psychedelia is reminiscent of fellow Michiganders Greensky Bluegrass, Strings’ “mentors,” if you will. We now know the heights in which that formula has taken them, but the question is; can Billy Strings take it even further? Well, he damn near outsold them on this night in Portland. There is no telling what the future holds for this kid.

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