Billy Strings brought his barnstorming spring tour and a fresh new tune to Cleveland’s Jacob’s Pavilion at Nautica just two shows away from a well-deserved few weeks off before the inevitable summer tour launches. Due to his early start in performing, Strings is deceptively young to be as accomplished as he is but with that seasoning also comes the pitfalls of life onstage. It, and the travel that comes with it, sometimes outweighs the joy of playing before packed houses night after night. Luckily, Billy isn’t facing this all alone.

Alex Hargreaves had his number called for the show opener “Sally Goodin’” and he set the tone perfectly. There are few more signature sounds of a genre than a well-bowed fiddle over a thumping one-two beat, and bassist Royal Masat was all over that. With that foundation set, it allowed Strings to come in like the sonic equivalent of a lightning strike the way he clearly loves to do.

Skimming across the song like a well-thrown stone across a pond, Stings’ sweet sounds were a perfect counter to the harsh but melodic twang of banjoist Billy Failing‘s pluckings added to the mix. Jarrod Walker wasn’t going to let the guys have all the fun and got into a twisty-turny snarl with Billy Strings’ line that provided the final ingredient, pushing everything over the top. Just one song in and every player had been given a chance to shine and nailed it.

From there it was off to the races. “Know It All”’s rolling banjo opening nearly doubled the portion of the crowd that was already dancing and from there the hits just kept coming. A wild trio of Thirst Mutilator”, “So Many Miles”, and “Dealing Despair” provided powerful examples of all the best elements this quintet has in their collective tool kit: insane speed, the ability to take their crowd to the deepest reaches of space in an instant, and an element of danger. Plus, you know, that living lightning guy center stage on the six-string strung-up box tearing it up all over the place.

Billy Strings – “Sally Goodin'” (Traditional), “Know It All” [Pro-Shot] – 6/14/23

The upbeat “Doin’ Things Right” had fans reaching up for the fading sun as Billy showed off a fuzzy, distorted rock tone that would make him a perfect candidate for Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “Enough To Leave” reminded fans that the band sounds mighty fine when they slow down and get emotional before “Hollow Heart” got them back boot-scootin’ in an instant.

After establishing the power of their own catalog, Strings and his crew gave musical homage to their influences with songs from Doc Watson, Larry Sparks, and Flatt & Scruggs (“Walk On Boy”, “A Face In The Crowd”, and “Farewell Blues”, respectively). The nightmarish “Wargasm” did its job ramping up tension in the crowd with its lament about man’s inhumanity to man. Those ominous overtones were followed by even darker undertones on the follow-up set-closing covers “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” and “And Am I Born To Die?”. For that last tune, Strings put down his main instrument and went acapella, sending chills down spines with his solo, mournful, and commandingly powerful vocals on that Doc Watson Family classic.

The sun was just finishing setting as the band returned to the stage determined to get everyone up and at it with live wire tunes like set opener “Dig A Lil Deeper In The Well” from The Oak Ridge Boys and the well-matched “Cabin Song”. Strings followed that with a heartfelt thanks to the crowd and a loving introduction of his bandmates, as well as the next tune, “Nothing’s Working”. Strings co-wrote the song with fellow Mitten Stater Lindsay Lou, whose upcoming album he also urged the crowd to check out. “Nothing’s Working” lived up to its hype before a “Slow Train” came calling.

The second that train departed, Strings hurried stage right and snatched a giant red balloon the crowd had been batting to and fro and had a little fun with it, bouncing it off his head with childhood glee before returning it to the eager outstretched hands of the masses. Bantering about the joys of ballon squishing and song requests followed as Billy seemed more obsessed with the distribution of inflated fun than the show itself. Fun had, “Tinfoil & Turmoil” got things back on track, and follow-ups “My Alice” and “On The Line” were other opportunities to give a fast-rolling nod to the band’s many, many wonderful dimensions.

Photo: Jesse Faatz

The newish Willie Nelson collaboration “California Sober” was next up and though the aging legend wasn’t there physically his spirit and influence over the proceedings were palpable. Another trio of covers, “The Preacher and the Bear”, “Hello City Limits”, and “Hold the Woodpile Down” again showcased Strings’ remarkable knowledge and reverence of the bluegrass genre as a whole.

Closing in on the end of the set, fan favorite “Thunder” rumbled the stage and sky before the night’s biggest treat came in the form of a seated, solo encore intro of a brand new Billy Strings tune, “Be Your Man”. The song spoke of the lack of empathy and despair in our cold, cold world, the eternal power of love, and the regrets of roads not taken. Though clearly not quite finished it was a wonderful glimpse into the soul behind the guitar fireworks.

To end a night that seemed to belong to the fellowship of being in a band, there was no more perfect way to cap the celebration than an old-time gathering acoustic sing-around with a single-mic rendition of “If Your Hair’s Too Long There’s Sin In Your Heart”. Comically, after this three-hour love letter to bluegrass and fellowship, the venue, intent on clearing the crowd, blared KISS‘s “Detroit Rock City” out of the loudspeakers. It was a highly effective counter to the energy the crowd was feeling and you’ll rarely see 10,000-plus fans of any genre flee as quickly as those at Cleveland’s Jacob’s Pavilion.

Those fleeing fans were surely discussing the display of virtuosity from Strings and the amazing job Strings has done finding a band that so perfectly complements his style of play. It isn’t always about finding the best in the world for a position…it’s about finding the best fit. Clearly, Billy Strings and his four fellow pickers are perfectly happy with their roles and that joy frees them up to simply do what they do, united in a way that only the luckiest of bands ever have. It’s a synergy of talents that makes everyone, from the stage to the sounds and, thanks to the stellar streams of, the entire world the winner. What more could anyone ask for?

Billy Strings’ spring tour winds down with shows Friday in Clarkston, MI and Saturday in Chicago. For tickets and a full list of tour dates visit his website. See below for a collection of fan-shot videos from Doug Heck.

Billy Strings – “Walk On Boy” (Mel Tillis) – 6/14/23

Billy Strings – “Wargasm” – 6/14/23

Billy Strings – “Am I Born To Die” (Charles Wesley) – 6/14/23

Billy Strings – “On The Line” > “Train 45” (Traditional) – 6/14/23

Billy Strings – “California Sober” – 6/14/23

Billy Strings – “Be Your Man” – 6/14/23

Billy Strings – “If Your Hair Is Too Long, There’s Sin In Your Heart” (Bobby Davidson) – 6/14/23

View Videos

Setlist: Billy Strings | Jacobs Pavilion At Nautica | Cleveland, OH | 6/14/23

Set 1: Sally Goodin’ (Traditional), Know it All, Thirst Mutilator > So Many Miles > Dealing Despair, Doin’ Things Right, Enough to Leave, Hollow Heart, Walk On Boy (Mel Tillis), A Face In the Crowd (Larry Sparks) [1], Farewell Blues (Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs) [2], Wargasm, Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down (Traditional), And Am I Born To Die? (Charles Wesley) [3]

Set 2: Dig a Little Deeper in the Well (The Oak Ridge Boys) > Cabin Song, Nothing’s Working, Slow Train (Larry Sparks), Turmoil & Tinfoil, My Alice, On the Line > Train 45 (Traditional), California Sober, The Preacher and the Bear (Arthur Collins), Hello City Limits (Red Allen), Hold the Woodpile Down (Uncle Dave Macon and His Fruit-Jar Drinkers), Thunder (Robert Hunter)

Encore: Be Your Man [4], If Your Hair Is Too Long, There’s Sin In Your Heart (Bobby Davidson) [5]

[1] Billy dedicated this song to his parents, Deb Apostol and Terry Barber. His mom Deb was in the crowd.

[2] LTP 7/19/20, 275 show gap

[3] Billy acapella

[4] Debut, Billy Strings solo

[5] Band around single mic