There was something for everyone at Wednesday’s Billy Strings show at the KeyBank State Theatre in Cleveland, OH. The bluegrass picker explored his range of influences with covers of The Beatles, Little Feat, Cher, Grateful Dead, and more.
After greeting the crowd with a friendly “hello there” Strings, Billy Failing (banjo), Royal Masat (bass), and Jarrod Walker (mandolin) started the show with Ralph and Carter Stanley‘s “Sharecropper’s Son”. The Bealtes‘ “Rocky Racoon” then made its first appearance since 11/30/21 in New Orleans. Whether intentional or not, the cover held some significance as Billy debuted The Beatles (aka The White Album) track nearly four years ago at the 300 person capacity Woodlands Tavern 145 miles away in Columbus.
Billy Strings – “Sharecropper’s Son” (Ralph & Carter Stanley), “Rocky Racoon” (The Beatles) – 3/9/22
The sold-out 3,400 person theater heated up with the ensuing “The Fire On My Tongue” as the guitarist born William Apostol began strutting his stuff. He kept it fairly traditional until kicking on the wah-wah pedal at the very end, only to segue into the relatively rare original “Salty Sheep”, played for just the eighth time in five years. Following “Hellbender”, the road rose to meet Billy and his bandmates with Little Feat‘s “Willin'”, making the trip to downtown Cleveland worth the gas money for all the rig jockeys in the audience.
Billy Strings – “Willin'” (Little Feat) – 3/9/22
That serenity of the open road then broke like shattered glass with the opening holler of “Dust In A Baggie”—”I ain’t slept in seven days, haven’t ate in three.” Billy then dished out another rare original with “These Memories Of You”, giving the Turmoil & Tinfoil track its first-ever telling in front of a live audience after debuting it during his fan-less Streaming Strings show at Nashville’s Exit/Inn on 7/24/20.
The quick hits kept on coming with Mel Tillis‘ “Walk On Boy”, followed by Dave Braham and Edward Harrigan‘s “Hold That Woodpile Down”. The opening fretboard rundown of “Thirst Mutilator” then wafted in like an enticing aroma from the kitchen as Billy let the crowd get a little taste of what he was cooking. The instrumental vehicle began the improvisational conversation between bandmates in earnest as the lead was passed around the circle like a ceremonial pipe in a friend’s basement.
As the pace continued to build courtesy of Billy’s distortion-laden, metal-inspired guitar riffs, the ensemble pulled the speeding locomotive into the downhill runaway truck lane that is Cher’s “Believe”. Following the dance-floor decadence of the 1998 pop hit, Strings wrapped the set with “Running The Route”.
Billy Strings – “Believe” (Cher) – 3/9/22
Returning for set two, Strings and company cast an eerie mood with Eddie Payne‘s “Psycho”. The quick-hit pace of the 13-song first set proved only a passing fancy as Billy dug deep for “Meet Me At The Creek”. The appropriately expansive telling saw Walker drop his bucket down deep in the well, only for Billy to bring the jam back up from the darkest depths of the subterranean.
“Secrets” offered one final breather for the second set—yes, only three songs in—before an unruly chain gang of segues carried through to the end of the show. The opening notes of “Dark Star” erupted a roar of applause, immediately followed by hushed awe as Billy Strings took on the Grateful Dead’s legendary jam vehicle. He treated the sacred composition with the utmost care, delicately exploring the outer recesses of sonic consciousness before venturing even further into the ether with a segue into “Spinning”.
The DMT-induced unfurling of the mind plunged even deeper into the nether regions of existence with a segue into Black Sabbath‘s “Planet Caravan”. The ongoing theme of downtempo rumination continued with the apathetic “Leaders”. Keeping both the segues and theme going, Billy then closed set two with “Wargasm” which, while still far less than optimistic, had the uptempo push needed to end the second frame strong.
Billy Strings – “Spinning” > “Planet Caravan” (Black Sabbath) > “Leaders” – 3/9/22
[Video: Michael Beyer]
Billy Strings – “Wargasm” – 3/9/22
Billy returned the stage solo to deliver his instrumental “Guitar Peace” from Home. The rest of the band then joined in for the serotonin-flooding ascension of Pink Floyd‘s “Fearless” to close the cover-filled evening.
Billy Strings – “Fearless” (Pink Floyd) – 3/9/22
[Video: Michael Beyer]
Billy Strings travels south down I-71 for a two-night run of shows at the Andrew J Brady ICON Music Center in Cincinnati, OH on Friday and Saturday. Tickets and livestream packages are available here.
Setlist [via BillyBase]: Billy Strings | KeyBank State Theatre | Cleveland, OH | 3/9/22
Set One: Sharecropper’s Son (Ralph Stanley, Carter Stanley), Rocky Raccoon (The Beatles), The Fire On My Tongue > Salty Sheep, Hellbender, Willin’ (Little Feat), Dust In A Baggie, These Memories Of You , Walk On Boy (Mel Tillis), Hold That Woodpile Down (Dave Braham, Edward Harrigan), Thirst Mutilator > Believe (Cher), Running The Route
Set Two: Psycho (Eddie Payne), Meet Me At The Creek, Secrets, Dark Star (Grateful Dead)  > Spinning > Planet Caravan (Black Sabbath) > Leaders > Wargasm
Encore: Guitar Peace  > Fearless (Pink Floyd)
 First time played in front of an audience.
 Bird Song teases
 BS solo