Billy Strings brought his progressive take on Americana to Cambridge, Massachusetts on Thursday night for his second sold-out show at The Sinclair in as many nights. Born William Apostol, Strings played several hours of original tunes and covers that contained elements of bluegrass, folk, blues, and rock, satisfying over 500 fans who came out to see the rising star at an intimate venue tucked within the historic Harvard Square.
As the multi-level room filled up on the crisp Boston night, Mattie & Debbie took to the stage for a solid supporting set. The irreverent Boston-based duo, which consists of Stash Wyslouch (guitar/vocals) and Sean Trischka (drums, vocals), provided a raw yet cohesive opening performance. Clearly bluegrass-inspired, they showed off their harmonic ability as well as an ability to experiment on the fly. The unavoidably minimalist nature of a two-piece was contrasted by their raucous attitude and lyrically deep originals that littered the 45-minute set. Notable highlights from the performance included a flamenco-inspired tune sung exclusively in Spanish, an ebullient original accented by heavily distorted acoustic guitar, and a rendition of their first single, “Piece of Paper”, which Wyslouch jokingly booed himself for playing two nights in a row.
Just after 10 p.m., Billy Strings arrived on the Sinclair stage with bandmates Billy Failing (banjo), Royal Masat (Bass), and Jarrod Walker (mandolin). A loud round of applause helped to lead the band into two songs off their latest release, Home—“Taking Water” and “Running”—before a cover of “Doin’ My Time”, a traditional bluegrass tune popularized by Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. “While I’m Waiting Here” contained a lengthy improv section in which Walker and Billy traded solos while creating soaring peaks that crashed down to delay-infused valleys. The more spacious areas of the room were replete with flamboyant dancing as each member took turns leading the rest of the band through the exceptional jam.
A “Pyramid Country” > “Little Maggie” segue led smoothly to an unfinished version of the Grateful Dead’s “China Doll”. Masat and Failing provided backing vocals before Billy added a layer of distortion to his acoustic guitar for a bluesy solo. The band continued with the “blue” theme through a cover of Townes Van Zandt‘s “White Freightliner Blues” and “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” by bluegrass icon Bill Monroe. The rapid-fire staccato picking inherent in bluegrass was on full display throughout the jam section of a noteworthy cover of The String Cheese Incident’s “Black Clouds” that ended the first set in upbeat fashion.
Picking up where he left off, Billy led the band into Home track “Away From The Mire”, which started off slow and showcased the frontman’s vocal range before the tempo picked up to a more brisk pace, contrasted with weighty lyrics that echoed throughout the room:
Let go of the pain, hold on to the rhythm
That’s consciously held back in you
You’re drowning a sorrow that’s long been at rest
The past is a Hell, it can creep up inside you
So let me remind you of this
There’s a reason your troubles exist
Home track “Long Forgotten Dream” and Billy Hayes‘ “I’ll Remember You Love in My Prayers” preceded “Watch It Fall”, which paved the way to fan-favorite “Dust in a Baggie”, off the self-titled Billy Strings EP. The crowd buzzed as Strings provided sprawling guitar leads and a chromatic walk-up that catapulted the band to the peak of the improv section.
Sean Trischka of Debbie & Mattie joined the band on the drum kit next for a cover of Phish’s “Back on the Train”. Vocal harmonies and a thumping bass solo by Masat brought the set to new heights. Trischka stuck around as Stash Wyslouch and Anh Phung (flute) came on for “Gold Rush” and presented an opportunity for skillful flute and acoustic guitar leads by the honored guests. All three musicians remained on stage for the rest of the set. A cover of “Haven’t Seen Mary in Years” featured Wyslouch on vocals and came before another Phish-y cover, Son Seals‘ “Funky Bitch”, kept the momentum high.
Strings donned his Gibson SG for “Funky Bitch”, which brought an added heaviness to the sound. An envelope filter effect provided funky overtones while the rhythm section remained concentrated and deliberate. Billy then counted the band into the penultimate song, Jimi Hendrix favorite “Fire”, before switching back to his acoustic guitar and allowing Phung to lead the band into “Meet Me at the Creek”, This expressive jam was marked by “Sand”, “Locomotive Breath”, and “Tweezer Reprise” teases, dueling guitars from Billy and Stash, as well as flute leads and a drum solo by Trischka. The show reached its climax here, creating an interesting dichotomy between the end of set two and the encore.
As fans cheered throughout the encore break, Billy finally came back to the stage alone, sans instrument. He ended the performance with a gutsy and astonishing acapella version of “Am I Born to Die”.
The Billy Strings fall tour continues tonight, Friday, November 15th, at Brooklyn Bowl for the first of two shows at the NYC venue this weekend. A free webcast is available for tonight’s show via The Relix Channel. For a complete list of tour dates, or to purchase tickets, head here.
See below for a selection of crowd-shot videos from the Thursday night Billy Strings performance at The Sinclair in Cambridge:
Billy Strings – “While I’m Waiting Here”/”Pyramid Country”/”Little Maggie” 11/14/19
[Video: Amy Karibian]
Billy Strings – “China Doll” [Grateful Dead cover] > “White Freight Liner” [Townes Van Zandt cover] – 11/14/19
[Video: Matt Frazier]
Billy Strings – “Black Clouds” [The String Cheese Incident cover] – 11/14/19
[Video: Matt Frazier]
Billy Strings – “Back On The Train” [Phish cover] – 11/14/19
[Video: Matt Frazier]
Billy Strings – “Funky Bitch” [Son Seals cover] – 11/14/19
Billy Strings – “Am I Born To Die” [a cappella, Doc Watson cover] – 11/14/19
[Video: Matt Frazier]
Setlist: Billy Strings | The Sinclair | Cambridge, MA | 11/14/19
Set One: Taking Water, Running, Doin’ My Time, While I’m Waiting Here > Pyramid Country > Little Maggie, China Doll!, White Freight Liner Blues, I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome, Black Clouds 
Set Two: Away from the Mire, Long Forgotten Dream, I’ll Remember You Love in my Prayers, Watch it Fall, Dust in a Baggie, Back on the Train^, Gold Rush*, Haven’t Seen Mary in Years*, Funky Bitch*, Fire*, Meet Me at the Creek*%
Encore: Am I Born to Die
Notes: Flatts & Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Boys | !unfinished | Grateful Dead | Townes Van Zandt | Bill Monroe |  String Cheese Incident | Bridie Gallagher | Phish | ^w/Sean Trischka | Bill and James Monroe | *w/Sean Trischka, Stash Wyslouch & Anh Phung | Jimi Hendrix | %w/Sand, Locomotive Breath, and Tweezer Reprise Teases | Doc Watson