Just when it seemed that Billy Strings and his band had reached their pinnacle of live performances, they dropped a two-show masterclass in group talent, skill, and synergy on the Colorado crowd at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre in Greenwood Village over the weekend. Strings’ squad—including the razor-sharp sounds of Billy Failing on banjo and Jarrod Walker on mandolin, fiddler Alex Hargreaves‘ epic washes of sound, and, of course, the living lightning bolt Strings himself and his electrifying fretboard skills all stretched across the miles-wide throbbing pocket laid out by bassist Royal Masat—seem to have somehow, collectively, taken a step beyond their previous high water marks and soared into new, uncharted levels.

Friday, May 17th

Ripping into the first set of the weekend already going nearly full speed, the road-hardened quintet gave what is likely to be considered the best performance of this nascent spring tour. Though bereft of noteworthy guests, venue, or themes the overall musicianship and complete, merited trust each instrumentalist displayed was as inspirational as the music itself.

The opening free-flowing three-song jam set the tone right out of the gate. The trio of tunes, “The Fire On My Tongue”, an unfinished take of Johnny Horton’s “Ole Slew Foot”, and a stellar “While I’m Waiting Here”, all featured strong harmonization, tight musicianship honed by recent shows, and a drive to improve with each note. The follow-up “While I’m Waiting Here” was airy and uplifting and set the place for the next three-song combo that followed close on its heels.

Billy Strings — “The Fire On My Tongue” > “Ole Slew Foot” (Johnny Horton) > “While I’m Waiting Here” [Pro-Shot] — 5/17/24

“Likes Of Me” and “Pyramid Country” both had some delightful melodic fierceness from the higher-pitched players but it was bassist Masat’s low-end sonics and grooving physical demeanor that seemed to steal all the attention before closing out “Ole Slew Foot”. “My Alice” provided its usual sense of malice and the “Whiskey River” that flowed after served as a reminder of some of the bluegrass genre’s core themes. Billy’s flatpicking on “River” displayed his phenomenal mind-melting skills and the “West Dakota Rose” that came next similarly broke hearts.

The next stanza of tracks, “Hellbender”,” Doin’ Things Right” and The Beatles‘ “I’ll Cry Instead” saw more Masat sonic sparks and even some solid vocal duties on the Fab Four’s track. Knowing bluegrass fans love any kind of railway mention, set closers “On The Line” and “Train 45” hit and ran like their subject matter, and the players cleared the stage for their well-earned respite.

Related: Here’s What We Learned From Billy Strings’ Interview On ‘WTF With Marc Maron’ [Listen]

Set two gave Hargreaves a chance to get going instantly with a fun transition from the past’s Bill Monroe tune “The Old Mountaineer” to the far more recent fare of Dierks Bentley’s “Fiddling Around” (penned by the late-great Jeff Austin with songwriter John Scott Sherrill and Shawn Camp). Strings then called his own number for “In The Clear” before the dynamically composed “Heartbeat Of America” gave everyone onstage a chance to shake out their psyches.

Never one to fall into a rut, Billy mixed things up by grabbing a chair while the rest of the band cleared out to let their boss show off his acoustic picking and vocal prowess. “Lonely At The Top” showed a lyrical depth and self-awareness that belied String’s years. The second seated tune, from The Delmore Brothers’ catalog, “Brown’s Ferry Blues”, zinged along and the always welcome and somewhat comical fishing tale “Catch And Release” once again recounted a Strings and Leftover Salmon frontman Vince Herman‘s fateful fishing trip. ”Guitar Peace” saw some beautiful fretting, picking, and rolling on Strings’ part before he and returning bandmates nailed an emotional go at Pink Floyd’s “Fearless”

One of the band’s most reliable anthems, “Fire Line”, gave everyone a bit more of a chance to get back on the same jamming, transcendental wavelength before they used Larry Sparks‘ “John Deere Tractor” letter home motif to maximum emotional impact. With time running out all that was left to do was close out the second set with a blistering “Highway Hypnosis” sandwich that had a tasty and apropos “Farewell Blues” via originators Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs at its center.

The encore, penned by the late bluegrass boundary-pushing John Hartford, “All Fall Down”, was a blast of rapidly expanding mayhem that shook the ground itself. Luckily for venue owners, the Earth-shaking show had ended for the evening, though the next night’s performance loomed ominously on the horizon.

Billy Strings — “All Fall Down” (John Hartford) — 5/17/24

[Video: Steam Powered Aerodyne]

Setlist: Billy Strings | Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre | Greenwood Village, CO | 5/17/24

Set One: The Fire On My Tongue > Ole Slew Foot(Johnny Horton) > While I’m Waiting Here, Likes Of Me > Pyramid Country > Ole Slew Foot (Johnny Horton), My Alice, Whiskey River (Johnny Bush), West Dakota Rose (Chris Henry and the Hardcore Grass), Hellbender > Doin’ Things Right > I’ll Cry Instead (The Beatles) [1], On The Line > Train 45

Set Two: The Old Mountaineer (Bill Monroe) > Fiddling Around (Jeff Austin, John Scott Sherrill, Shawn Camp), In the Clear, Heartbeat Of America, Lonely At The Top (Jamey Johnson) [2], Brown’s Ferry Blues (Delmore Brothers) [2], Catch and Release [2], Guitar Peace [3] [4], Fearless (Pink Floyd) [4], Fire Line, John Deere Tractor (Larry Sparks), Highway Hypnosis > Farewell Blues (Flatt & Scruggs) > Highway Hypnosis

Encore: All Fall Down (John Hartford)

[1] Royal Masat on lead vocals
[2] Billy Strings solo seated front of stage
[3] Billy Strings solo on his Preston Thompson “Bride” Custom D-SBA
[4] Billy Strings on his Preston Thompson “Bride” Custom D-SBA

Saturday, May 18th

In the interest of topping the previous night’s bluegrass bacchanal, Strings and company brought in some outside firepower for night two of two at Fiddler’s Green. Luckily for the players and fans alike, the Denver area is home to some of the finest pickers on the planet and there’s pretty much no one in the music scene who wouldn’t jump at the chance to share the stage with the guitarist and his regular accomplices-in-musical-crime. Strings and company wisely kept said friends in their pocket until the second set for insurance’s sake.

Thematically, opening the second show with John Hartford’s “I’m Still Here” was an inspired move after closing the previous evening with another Hartford composition. The song’s lyrical subject matter of preservation and the uptempo “Everything’s The Same” combined for a powerful statement about the band’s intentions for the evening. “Watch It Fall” and the subsequent take on Hot Rize’s version of “Nellie Kane” were rich with bluegrass’ traditional sounds and tone. “This Old World” was fairly standard but the Doc Watson twosome, “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town” and “Black Mountain Rag”, called any dancing fan to get up and shake a tail feather.

Billy Strings — “I’m Still Here” (John Hartford) > “Everything’s The Same” [Pro-Shot] — 5/18/24

Strings thanked his parents for their influence on his encyclopedic knowledge of the bluegrass canon after Leon Payne’s “Ain’t Nothing To Me” before “Be Your Man” came along and broke all the hearts in earshot. Fan-favorite “Thirst Mutilator” and slowly-rising regular “Cabin Song” paired well for a good retrospective of Billy’s evolution as a songwriter. The next tune, an almost mechanical take on George Gershwin’s songbook classic “Summertime”, played out as if some crucial element of the tune’s musical equation was either altered or completely removed. It wasn’t that the song suffered a net loss in quality but the emotions evoked were radically different from the piece’s original intent.

First-set closers “Must Be Seven” and the much loved “Meet Me At The Creek” were the heart of Saturday’s opening salvo and had some of the most energizing crowd impact of the weekend. The awesome trade-offs between Strings and Hargreaves were noteworthy and the rolling, twangy intrusion by Failing’s crisp banjo and Walker’s mandolin, aided as always by Masat’s throbbing bass heartbeat, were practically alchemy in action. At their conclusion, there seemed little choice but to end the opening clutch of songs to give everyone a much-needed breather.

After opening with “Secrets”, Billy and co revisited “California Sober”, the result of Billy’s storied collaboration with country icon Willie Nelson. The theme of a hard-lived life’s need to settle down as the years pile up might be a bit beyond what you might expect from this assemblage of moderately youthful players but it still worked thanks to their cheeky but respectful delivery. The instrumental ode to the love of pet owners and the animal friends found in the Billy Failing-penned “Charlie’s Birthday Breakdown” paid homage to that lost emotional bond with unexpected positivity. The Stanley Brothers‘ tune “Harbor Of Love” showcased Billy Strings and company’s often-overlooked skill at vocal layering and spacing before the band got that aforementioned amping up from the night’s special guest, dobro master Andy Hall from The Infamous Stringdusters.

The visit’s first pair of tunes, “Home Of The Red Fox” and “My Sweet Blue Eyed Darling”, featured some fretboard fireworks between the two guitarists that were simply incendiary. Hattie Nevada‘s “The Letter Edged In Black” made the most of Hall’s emotive capabilities, wringing extra sorrow out of the century-old cover thanks to the added note bending. Closing out the sit-in with a brief “Seven Weeks In County” before Hall’s own Stringdusters song “No More To Leave You Behind” left no doubt that Strings’ quip at the departing guitarist about the dobro being the only thing his band was missing seem like potential foreshadowing for future collaborations.

Billy Strings, Andy Hall — “Home Of The Red Fox” (Bill Emerson) > “My Sweet Blue Eyed Darling” (Bill Monroe) — 5/18/24

[Video: Steam Powered Aerodyne]

Billy Strings, Andy Hall — “The Letter Edged In Black” (Hattie Nevada) — 5/18/24

[Video: Steam Powered Aerodyne]

With Hall’s special appearance in the rearview, it was time to face down the ticking clock on the final remaining minutes of the second set. “Enough To Leave” was as penitent as always and the Strings classic “Dust In A Baggie” again filled the air with desperation that mirrored the band’s efforts to squeeze in as much fun as possible to the waning evening’s performance. The set-closing “Ten Degrees & Getting Colder” by Gordon Lightfoot and an epic “Turmoil & Tinfoil” ended the main performance with a fitting amount of both introspection and bombast.

Eschewing the dated tradition of departing the stage to garner easy crowd cheers, Billy and company simply used the remaining time usefully, making their take on the New Lost City Ramblers‘ “Train On The Island” more complex and wide in scope thanks to the added time. Billy took the time to introduce the band one last time, giving heartfelt thanks to Colorado as a whole and fans in attendance specifically for making this and other visits always something to remember before wearily exiting stage left.

Both nights of the weekend run saw a similar result when the house lights came on and PA music blazed to life and signaled the need to depart and disperse. Dazed, confused but elated fans, new and old, headed for their cars and holes with astonished expressions on their faces and joy in their hearts. Longtime fans spoke to each other about the impressive progressions each player has made while the newer folks in the audience realized what they had been missing in similar disbelief.

One thing everyone in attendance seemed to agree on was the truly impressive nature of the performances they had just witnessed. From the generational guitar talents on display and the disarming and endearing emotional openness of Strings himself or the space and encouragement he gives the rest of his sidemen to progress and shine, the resulting musical memories being produced on a nightly basis are destined to be cherished for the collective lifetimes of audiences now and yet to come.

Billy Strings’ spring tour continues on Tuesday with a sold-out show in Minneapolis. For a full list of tour dates visit his website. Check out some photos from Billy’s Saturday show in Colorado below courtesy of photographer Conrad Meyer.

Setlist: Billy Strings | Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre | Greenwood Village, CO | 5/18/24

Set One: I’m Still Here (John Hartford) > Everything’s The Same, Watch It Fall > Nellie Kane (Hot Rize), This Old World, The Train That Carried My Girl From Town (Traditional) > Black Mountain Rag (Doc Watson), Ain’t Nothing To Me (Leon Payne), Be Your Man, Thirst Mutilator > Cabin Song, Summertime (George Gershwin), Must Be Seven > Meet Me At The Creek

Set Two: Secrets, California Sober, Charlie’s Birthday Breakdown, Harbor of Love (Carter Stanley), Home Of The Red Fox (Bill Emerson) [1] > My Sweet Blue Eyed Darling (Bill Monroe) [1], The Letter Edged In Black (Hattie Nevada) [1], Seven Weeks in County [1], No More To Leave You Behind (The Infamous Stringdusters) [1], Enough To Leave, Dust In A Baggie, Ten Degrees & Getting Colder (Gordon Lightfoot) > Turmoil & Tinfoil

Encore: Train On The Island (New Lost City Ramblers)

[1] w/ Andy Hall (The Infamous Stringdusters) on dobro