Billy Strings returned to the stage at an eerily empty Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado on Saturday night to live-stream three blazing sets of music. Following up a short tour of seven socially-distanced shows dubbed Meet Me At The Drive-In, Billy and company nixed the live crowd and upped the size of his stage for a celebration of one year since the release of his most recent album, HOME.
Last night’s headlining performance marked the second time Billy Strings has played at Red Rocks, as well as his first time headlining a bill at the Morrison venue. Billy and his crew made their debut at the famed outdoor venue just over one year ago, when they opened up the third and final night of Greensky Bluegrass‘ three-night stand last September. You can revisit our photos and coverage of the 2019 Red Rocks debut here.
The pay-per-view stream on Nugs.TV featured three live sets performed by Billy Strings (real name William Apostol) and his eponymous band: Billy Failing on banjo, Royal Masat on bass, and Jarrod Walker on mandolin. Billy Strings and his band had no problems filling the hollow space of a cavernous venue devoid of screaming fans with scorching licks and homegrown harmonies.
Rolling up his sleeves and getting down to it, a newly short-haired Billy Strings and his band opened with a cover of Doc Watson’s “Red Rocking Chair” before moving on to the first original of the night, “Doin’ Things Right” off 2017’s Turmoil & Tinfoil. Billy pedaled in some distortion for his solo, adding some crunchiness to his pure acoustic sound. Royal followed up with a smooth bass solo that teased “Use Me”, a tribute to the recently deceased soul legend, Bill Withers.
The string band ripped through the “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe’s “Southern Flavor” before Billy introduced his band and commented, “It’s kinda nice to have a jam session at Red Rocks. We wish you can all be here, but you can’t.” Billy and his band then dusted off “Hold that Woodpile Down”, another Doc Watson tune that hasn’t been played by Billy Strings since 9/17/19 in South Salt Lake, Utah.
Billy Strings – “Red Rocking Chair”, “Doin’ Things Right” > “Southern Flavor”, “Hold The Woodpile Down” [Pro-Shot] – Red Rocks – 9/26/20
[Video: Billy Strings]
After a quick adjustment, with the band joking with each other about the Colorado air messing with their guitar tunings, Billy Strings played a poignant rendition of “Home”, the title track of the album released exactly one year ago. The song has taken on new meanings since the COVID shutdown and subsequent isolation of quarantine.
Before digging into the next one, Billy expressed another dilemma while performing in Colorado, “Before we got started, I was hitting this bowl and I inhaled this big chunk of weed and it went down my throat and I’m all like ‘Kwagghhh’. I wonder if that’s how Bill Monroe got his tone” Billy joked and introduced a song that’s “sad as hell” before performing Roy Acuff’s “Willie Roy, the crippled boy”. One last cover came in the form of Greensky Bluegrass’s “Letter to Seymour” before Billy closed the set with back to back tunes from his own repertoire. “Watch It Fall” preceded a heavy psychedelic dose of “Away From The Mire”, which sandwich “Home” on the 2019 album’s track listing, to close the first set of three sets in style.
Night had fallen when Billy Strings returned for set two after a short break. The band emerged from the shadows as Billy kicked off the second set with a short introduction while donning his trusty banjo: “I love seeing bluegrass music here at Red Rocks. I love hearing banjos bounce off these rocks. So, we wanted to send some banjos up there.”
A finger-pickin’ maelstrom of dueling banjo melodies swirled into the formation of “Dos Banjos”. Billy broke it down between songs to reminisce about his first time at Red Rocks, opening for Greensky Bluegrass last September. He noted the difference between the energy of playing for the ravenous crowd on that day compared to the peaceful serenity of the empty venue last night. (“HELLO!!! JERONIMO!!!”” Billy screamed into the microphone, taking amusement from the returning echo).
“Hollow Heart”, another cut from 2019’s HOME, was performed in celebration of the album’s one-year birthday. Next, Billy Strings debuted a cover of Larry Jon Wilson’s “Broomstraw Philosopher’s and Scuppernong Wine” off his 1975 album, New Beginnings. Notably, the tune was covered and included on Doc Watson and Merle Watson’s 1977 album, Lonesome Roads.
After the song ended, Billy took a sip of water while asking rhetorically, “Can you guys hear me drink on TV? I hate that. I don’t know if I’m triggering you, people with misophonia.” (“SCUPPERNONG!!!” Billy echoed to himself).
Billy Strings and his band breathed life into a high-intensity, sixteen-minute breakdown of “Meet Me at the Creek”, another track from 2017’s Turmoil & Tinfoil. “Man, we wish you folks were there for that one!” Billy exclaimed, the virtual crowd’s energy and response blocked by distance and the forcefields of their TVs’ and computer monitors). A cover of Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia’s “To Lay Me Down” gave the band a chance to display their incredible harmonization. Billy Failing and Jarrod Walker stepped up to microphone to accompany Billy Strings down this vocal walk along the river.
Billy’s on-stage bantering continued as he joked that they should huddle like a football team between songs as he pantomimed the suggested process. He passed lead vocals to Jarrod Walker for a classic revival of The Stanley Brothers’ tune, “Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine”.
To close out the second set, once more Billy Strings and his band returned to his own catalogue for two more tracks off 2019’s HOME with a lightning-fast “Running”, slowing down and meandering its roundabout way into “Love Like Mine” after more shtick from the musical leadman.
When Billy Strings and the band returned, their entrance was synched up with an audience clapping and clamoring as contrasting images of the empty venue were ironically included. Strings opened up the third set with a rowdy cover of The Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon” before returning [to] HOME once more for “Taking Water”. Afterwards, Billy Strings spoke about the occupational hazards of “eating mushrooms before a gig” and explained how difficult it could be to stay on track (“I don’t know how ya could mess up any more than that. We were supposed to play ‘Cold On The Shoulder’, and I started playing ‘Tipper’ in G, and ‘Cold On The Shoulder’ we do in B…” Billy declared to his imaginary audience that they “looked beautiful out there… absolutely gorgeous” before diving into Tony Rice’s “Tipper” off his 1986 Me & My Guitar album.
Returning to HOME, Billy and his band performed “Long Forgotten Dream” and “Highway Hypnosis” in the same order as the album’s track listing. With the third set flowing like a fine wine, Billy led his band through “Mr. Charlie”, the second Grateful Dead favorite of the night. Royal Masat took lead vocals for an appropriately gravelly cover.
Another pause gave Billy the chance to express his feelings: “Thank you all so much for tuning in and listening to us play at Red Rocks. Wow, it’s really cool to be here, I wish you could be here too, but thank you for being here with us in that sense, because we know that we’re playing to you and it feels really good. We love you and miss you.”
Diving back into his own repertoire for the second to last time of the night, Billy Strings brought a tumultuous 13-minute “Turmoil & Tinfoil” off his 2017 album of the same name. Bill Monroe’s “A Good Woman’s Love” washed away the hallucinogenic hangover and replaced it with the slow and steady tempo of moonshine-drinkin’, mountain music.
Rounding out the final set, “Pyramid Country” segued into J.J. Cale’s “Ride Me High.” Billy Strings has performed this song 13 times since joining Widespread Panic onstage to play the cover at the Ryman Auditorium last year. To close out the final frame of the third set, Billy Strings and his band went with traditional tune, “Little Maggie”, credited to The Stanley Brothers. Billy thanked virtual audience and the empty benches of the famous venue one last time before departing for the night.
Scroll down to check out a gallery of photos from the Billy Strings Red Rocks performance via photographer Jesse Faatz.
While Billy Strings’ touring schedule coming up is open-ended, he will perform on Saturday, October 3rd as part of Democracy Comes Alive, a virtual festival to get out the vote presented by Live For Live Music in partnership with HeadCount.
Other performers set to appear on Democracy Comes Alive include members of the Grateful Dead and The String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee, Trampled By Turtles, Warren Haynes, Melvin Seals & JGB, Fruition, Shawn Colvin, Kitchen Dwellers, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Goose, and many more.
To secure your ticket to Democracy Comes Alive on October 3rd, check your voter registration status or donate to HeadCount at DemocracyComesAlive.com.