Billy Strings hitched a ride on the end of a rainbow into the ExploreAshville.com Arena on Friday for the first of a three-night Halloween run. The show took on a thematic nature as it paralleled the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, in accordance with the engagement’s theme. The entire show saw Strings and Co standing before a massive LED screen that stretched the span of the floor. Dusty imagery of a sepia tone farm donned the screen ahead of the show.
The evening began with the debut of an instrumental, “Redwing”. What at first seemed like an “easing into it” opener quickly proved otherwise as Strings and his bandmates Billy Failing (banjo), Jarrod Walker (mandolin), and Royal Masat (bass) skipped the foreplay and quickly worked themselves into a frenzy. The rambunctious, sold-out crowd in Asheville wouldn’t allow the band a moment’s rest as they provided an energetic push throughout the evening.
Billy Strings – “Redwing” > “Fire On My Tongue” > “Must Be Seven” – 10/29/21
One of Billy’s first orders of business was paying tribute to the late Duane Allman, who left the world exactly 50 years prior on October 29th, 1971. Billy made sure to throw in a tease of “Jessica” for the late Skydog before transitioning into “Fire On My Tongue”. Strings and Walker entered into a call-and-response jam that read like a conversation between two old friends.
Billy settled into the sentimentality of “Must Be Seven” next, offering up the improvisational lead for a bit of around-the-horn jamming. The first break in the action came before the band quickly picked the pieces back up for Doc Watson‘s “Ready for the Times to Get Better”. The bit of trad grass threw things into a minor key, calming down the crowd if only momentarily.
Any thoughts that Billy would reserve the more on-the-nose homages to The Wizard of Oz were immediately dashed as Failing stepped to the mic for the band’s first-ever take on “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. The banjo picker’s delicate falsetto lifted the whole arena high above the chimney tops as we all dreamed of a place way up high. This—logically—lead into “End of the Rainbow” before the band kicked back into gear with “Ice Bridges”.
Billy Strings – “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (Arlen/Harburg) – 10/29/21
[Video: Troy Laur]
William’s metal began to show as he switched on the overdrive to shred the solo, shifting gears from the more-traditional sound that had to this point defined the first set. This evolving sound was ironically followed up with “Everything’s The Same”, which saw Billy playing to the crowd by changing the opening line to “I’m going to Asheville/I’m going to Maine.”
By the time things got to “Thirst Mutilator”, everyone was well acquainted as the band dialed into that rich crossroads of bluegrass-meets-jam-meets-metal that makes Billy Strings the spectacle he is. The wheels were turning and the band was moving with a segue into “Running The Route” which rolled right on down the road before the set-closing “Highway Hypnosis”, featuring the first of many “If I Only Had A Brain” teases for the evening.
Coming back for the second frame, Billy Strings and associates dove in headfirst with The String Cheese Incident‘s “Black Clouds”. The reliable jam vehicle did not disappoint—does it ever?—as the band snuck in some more “If I Only Had A Brain” teases. An airborne theme began to develop as Strings beckoned out the immortal words of Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter with “Thunder”. The crack of William’s voice on the repeated titular line cut through the night sky before the band set the arena into an all-out frenzy with J.J. Cale‘s “Ride Me High”.
Billy Strings – “Black Clouds” (The String Cheese Incident) – 10/29/21 – Partial
[Video: Ryan Mogel]
Billy Strings – “Ride Me High” (J.J. Cale) – 10/29/21
[Video: Troy Laur]
The incendiary take on the Widespread Panic-frequented track soon gave way to a reprise of “Thunder” to finish out the final verse. The gang didn’t stop for a moment as the hits kept on coming with “Hide & Seek” to continue on the second set that was wall-to-wall jams.
Then a funny thing happened.
Just as the rotating fractal imagery on the LED screen got a little too much, Billy seemed to have sensed the spins coming on as he entered into the out-of-body experience that is “Spinning”. The narration of the song was clearly setting something up as the once-raucous crowd settled into an awed hush. With the ambient psychedelia in full force, the entire band left the stage as “Spinning” continued to play over the PA. A sonic twister then blew through the arena, transporting the crowd to somewhere over the rainbow.
An audience without a band, we all looked around desperately searching for answers. The solution was delivered as the band took the stage again, this time dressed in vibrant colors as a veritable rainbow of balloons dropped from overhead, ushering in the transition from sepia into full color. As if the descent of color weren’t euphoric enough, Billy Strings led the band through its first-ever take on Pink Floyd‘s “Brain Damage”, syncing the Dark Side of the Moon track up with the moment the 1939 film turns to color. Sensory overload persisted as it was difficult to decide whether to look at the balloons, the band, or your fellow concertgoers to confirm, yes, this is indeed happening.
Billy Strings – “Brain Damage” (Pink Floyd) – 10/29/21
[Video: Beth Boylan]
With no possible way to follow the serotonin-busting sequence that just occurred, the band left the stage and did not return for an encore. How could you? Mic drop. End of show.
Billy Strings’ Halloween run at the ExploreAsheville.com Arena in Asheville, NC continues tonight. October 30th, in color.
Setlist: Billy Strings | ExploreAsheville.com Arena | Asheville, NC | 10/29/21
Set One: Redwing (1)(2)(3) > Fire On My Tongue > Must Be Seven, Ready for the Times to Get Better, Somewhere Over the Rainbow (4), End of the Rainbow > Ice Bridges, Everything’s the Same, Thirst Mutilator > Running The Route, Highway Hypnosis (5)
Set Two: Black Clouds (5) > Thunder > Ride Me High (5)(2) > Thunder > Hide & Seek (6) > Spinning > Brain Damage (7)
(1) Somewhere Over the Rainbow tease
(2) Jessica tease (Duane passed 10/29/71)
(3) FTP – (Instrumental)
(5) If I Only Had a Brain tease
(6) Feel Like a Stranger tease
(7) FTP – Pink Floyd
Notes: Band dressed as Dorothy and family before the Tornado. The spinning outro was looped through the PA while the band left the stage. Entire show had the band lit in greyscale. They returned to colored lighting/balloon drop during Brain Damage.