Billy Failing Band, The Fretliners & Friendly Reminders 1.4.24

Aggie Theatre
Fort Collins, CO

Words and Photos by Nicholas Stock

The poster advertising the show depicted an iced over semi truck. I can’t think of more fitting iconography when promoting a January 4th concert. All the confetti and lizard costumes have been put away and all that is left are the die hard music fans. Those brave enough to venture out to the veritably deserted Old Town Fort Collins received an absolute hometown throw down complete with parents and family dotting the crowd. Tickets were available at the door but elbow room was at a premium as music lovers packed in for the festivities. I found myself next a chunky contingent of elder fans who I later learned were the parents of the opening band the Friendly Reminders.

The Friendly Reminders brought the whole gang to The Aggie. The Reminders are a four piece string band anchored by Ian Forster on guitar and Meg Rice on the upright bass. On the surface they are another young and fuzzy bluegrass band, but the lyrics reveal a different side. Their music dances between traditional, gypsy jazz and the macabre. Songs like the bouncy “Busk or Bust” pulled in the crowd early. “Washington State” was a tight string jam about a long distanced love. Meg took over vocal duties on John Hartford’s “Joseph’s Dream.” The band was joined by The Wormdogs' fiddler Danica Cunningham all the way from Vermont. She sat in on Gillian Welch’s “Red Clay Halo” before adding her fiddle to “Steve.” They closed the show with “My Name Is Dirt,” a song celebrating decomposition from a postmortem perspective. While their songwriting seems more murder balled than most, musically they are on point and a whole hell of a lot of fun to watch.

The Fretliners are riding a high on a wave that began last summer with band competition wins at both Rockygrass and The Telluride Bluegrass Festival. This has only happened once before, but it’s not a huge surprise given the talent in this quartet. The band is a veritable bluegrass super group featuring Henhouse Prowlers' alumni Dan Andree on fiddle, Wood Belly’s Tom Knowlton on guitar, Taylor Shuck on bass and Sam Parks on mandolin. I first saw Sam perform with Head For The Hills, but he has played with numerous other groups including Jeremy Garrett’s solo band. They all met around a microphone at The Cloverlick Banjo Shop and the rest as they say, "is history." They have just released their first self-titled album and are set to take the bluegrass world by storm. Their set at The Aggie was the meat of this bluegrass sandwich. They showcased their songwriting with the dark murder ballad “Shadows of my Past” and the soaring “Where The Green Grass Grows.”

They were smart about their covers dropping Leon Russell’s “Prince Of Peace” into the setlist early. Tom teed up “Lonesome Holler” by telling us it was written by his Southern Baptist father. It was a moonshined soaked song that felt like it was written over a hundred years ago and it was an obvious highlight. Taylor took over the mic on Tony Rice’s “Tell Me Baby Why You Been Gone So Long.” Sam took his turn with a twangtastic rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.” Everyone in the band has both musical and vocal chops giving them a wide range to play with on stage. They did a little instrument switcheroo on “The Strawberry Moon," before they closed with their first single “Purple Flowers.” It was a great set of music plain and simple. Now, with a slew of festival dates and shows already announced The Fretliners show no sign of slowing down. As the world’s palate for bluegrass expands look for talented ringers to form successful projects to satiate a wider audience.

Billy Failing has called Colorado home for a number of years, which explains the rest of his band. He played at the Aggie with a few usual suspects including national flatpicking champion Tyler Grant on guitar, Silas Herman on mandolin, and Jean-Luc Davis on bass. This too was a super group of incredible talent. They got the crowd locked in early with a smoking version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” Failing jumped on the mic for a spot on “Steam Powered Aereo Plane.” This would not be our last John Hartford tune of the evening. Billy sprinkled in originals throughout the set including the poignant, guitar heavy “My Reflection.” The band just clicked for a tight take on Bill Monroe’s forlorn love song “Letter From My Darlin’.” For something completely different, they went into the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Hollow.” Failing again showed his deep songwriting skills on the country soaked original “Weathered and Worn.” This band doesn’t clock that many gigs a year, but you couldn’t tell from their musical chemistry on stage. They all were absolutely shredding with Billy occasionally calling a solo with a nod. Lineups like these are a Front Range phenomenon. I think of Billy Nershi Band and Drew Emmitt Band as analogies from an earlier era. Great pickers coming together to support a friend and contemporary. It makes for some unique shows and some ridiculous collaborations. They put a ribbon on a fantastic set with Failing’s “So Many Miles” into Cowboy Jack Clamente’s “Here I Go Down The Wrong Road Again.”

This show was a three-headed Hydra of hometown awesomeness. It was all strings no drums and a whole lotta fun. It felt like a family show, albeit a packed one. Failing seems to have a rotating cast of characters for his band but he hit a home run with this lineup. Time will tell if Billy keeps the band together for the next show.

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