There’s a dangerous magic that can come when a band as talented as the one guitar virtuoso Billy Strings has put together knows that they have three nights in a row at a venue like St. Augustine Amphitheatre. In their prime and eager to hone their sound to a razor’s edge, the nimble quintet can cut as deep as possible without leaving any sort of physical mark, as if the slashes had never even occurred. That said, while the body remains whole, it’s the mind that is left in joyous pieces after a mystical musical experience potent enough to catch even the most jaded fan of the form off guard like the one Billy Strings delivered last night.

With eyes squeezed shut against the waning light of the bright but setting Florida sun, Billy and the guys got as pure bluegrass as you can get with a show-opening “Gone A Long Time”. Strings was in full “stage commander ” mode, calling out switches and solos while strumming and picking along at a blistering pace. Clearly ready for that sky’s bright lights to fade, the boys brought down the pace and slipped into one of the genre’s great traditions, the murder ballad, with a tension-filled version of “My Alice”, each musician intently focused on their instrument.

Finally able to avoid the glint of the sun’s rays, Billy welcomed the crowd, sharing in their delight to be back for night two. “There’s no reason tonight can’t be the best night of your life!” he said with charming optimism. “Last night was the best night of my life…but there’s no reason tonight can’t be even better!” That’s the kind of attitude youth, hope, and incredible success can breed, and it’s nice to see it appreciated as a gift, not a burden as so many come to find fame and fortune.

Billy Strings – “Gone A Long Time”, “My Alice”, “The Fire On My Tongue” > “Secrets” [Pro-Shot] – 4/21/23

The followup, “Secrets”, was a showcase of the band’s versatility, allowing mandolin whiz Jarrod Walker and fiddler Alex Hargreaves a chance to stretch their musical legs for a brisk jaunt across the soundscape. It’s hard to say what this band does best when they do so many things so well in such speedy succession. Whether it was banjo whiz Billy Failing nailing spectacular rolls and fills on “Watch it Fall” or feeling the pace-setting heartbeat of bassist Royal Masat on the dark, scar-covered “Living Like An Animal”, the players were truly impressive.

In the songs that followed, every member of the band got a fine chance to step up, blow a mind or three, and step back to make room for the next surprise they had waiting up their collective sleeve. Flowing expansively into a thrilling “Long Forgotten Dream”, Strings was picking a million miles an hour, utilizing sci-fi level echo effects on his vocals and guitar.

Next up in the set, Billy Strings acknowledged the picturesque setting with an ode to the Sunshine State’s beloved Suwannee River on “My Florida Sunshine”, ironically as the sun finally dipped behind the horizon. Then, after warning “Blues Stay Away From Me” the guitarist went full “Psycho” with yet another ode to murder and madness.

Billy Strings – “My Florida Sunshine” [Rehearsal Video] – 4/21/23

From there, it was time to “Meet  Me at The Creek” where worried minds go to contemplate collective troubles and the hope that something, anything, could take our collective pains away—heady stuff, lyrically, evenly matched by the complicated intertwining of all five instrumentalists, the four straining to keep up with the almost robotic speeds Strings can reach. It was his ability to not lose emotional resonance when nearly breaking the sound barrier that was most impressive as Billy Strings got going. When he finally relented, in a quieter moments, Hargreaves filled the amphitheater with chords that seemed to dance across the ripples in the air Strings had left. It was a breathtaking musical journey, and the crowd was either in full cheer or left dumbfounded by grooves as delightful as they were impenetrable.

It’s in these moments when the band is at full throttle that Billy Strings lets his star fully shine, in this case with a towering, truly epic soloing section during the set closer that showed exactly why tickets to his shows disappear as quickly as they do. It’s not magic, though it might seem that way. The crowd isn’t being fooled by any sort of trick. The guy is really just that good.

Retaking the stage with a military charge, Strings offered a smiley, “Yes indeedy,” and like that it was back on as if it had never stopped. As if looking to explain his otherworldly skills, Strings and co. dropped a throbbing “Everything’s The Same” with its lyrical allusions to deals with the Devil.

A bit more Florida love was up next with a breezy “Likes Of Me” before an out-of-nowhere everglade downpour “Thunder” filled the air. With a solo as majestic as any storm’s towering clouds, the long-form jam it contained was easily the finest of the weekend to this point, and, again, came as a direct result of a true star lifting the game of everyone around him. The cheers that followed the tune’s finish were from folks who knew they had just witnessed a truly mystic musical moment.

From there, Billy and the band pulled back on the reins a bit and brought the bluegrass roots of their sound back to the forefront with a Tony Rice-penned “Manzanita” to clear the air with some of “Florida’s own Jarrod Walker” doing some impressive picking on his mandolin. The next few songs flowed quickly in a bluegrass haze, with “Cabin”, “There Is A Time”, and “The Old Mountaineer” falling into place in tight succession, the last of which showcased the old-timey chops of Hargreaves. You could close your eyes and easily lose track of what century you were in as he wove his sonic illusions with droning chords and bows that transcended time and space.

The far more modern arrangement of “Home” brought an element of echoing madness that once again peeled back and exposed the band’s psychedelic depths. Following in the footsteps of their spiritual forefathers Greensky Bluegrass, Cornmeal, and Yonder Mountain String Band, Strings and his band are as adept at effect-laden head trips as they are accomplished pickers and grinners. That said, though the first few steps were not their own, they’ve certainly done magnificent work pushing the musical boundaries a string band can so often be constrained by, sonically.

Strings took a moment to address his personal disbelief that so many vocal, supportive fans have found his band and their music. Speaking of his life long desire to play music, he made a moving acknowledgement of the honor it was to make the music he does and expressed appreciation for the band and crew that helps make it all possible.

As if on cue, he picked up a hand-rolled cigarette that landed at his feet and gave it a try before coughing mightily. Stepping back, he called his banjo player in to cover for him with a, “Billy, save me!” Always ready, Failing took over mic duties for a picking and vocal double-duty take on “On The Line” before a scene-stealing spider that was creeping along Strings guitar fretboard somehow requested the quick and well-loved instrumental ode to Andy Griffith character (and noted trouble maker) “Ernest T. Grass”. Not one to turn down such a well-woven request, the band obliged and once again found themselves wandering outside the realms of reality.

Slowly returning to the physical plane, Billy and the boys gave a rousing take on “Little Maggie” that had the crowd breathless and dazed while they slipped off stage to catch their collective breath.

Almost serving as an admission that they had nearly reached their limit, Billy and the band delivered a cutting take on the Jackson Browne-penned “Running On Empty”. With a moment or three left in the show, Billy bade the fans to get where they were going while everyone on stage checked their tunings before examining the dangers of the modern incarceration state with “Dust In A Baggie”.

After two incredible evenings of magic and mayhem, we’ll see what Billy and company have left in their bag of tricks for the Saturday night run closer. The show is available to livestream free of charge for all subscribers.

Billy Strings – “Gone A Long Time” – 4/21/23

[Video: Doug Heck]

Billy Strings – “Living Like An Animal” > “Long Forgotten Dream” – 4/21/23

[Video: Doug Heck]

Billy Strings – “Blues Stay Away From Me” (The Delmore Brothers) – 4/21/23

[Video: Doug Heck]

Billy Strings – “Psycho” (Eddie Noack) > “Meet Me At The Creek” – 4/21/23

[Video: Doug Heck]

Billy Strings – “Everythings The Same” – 4/21/23

[Video: Todd Norris]

Billy Strings – “Thunder” (Robert Hunter) – 4/21/23

[Video: Todd Norris]

Billy Strings – “Manzanita” (Tony Rice) – 4/21/23

[Video: Doug Heck]

Billy Strings – “Cabin Song” – 4/21/23

[Video: Billy the Kid]

Billy Strings – “There Is A Time” – 4/21/23

[Video: Billy the Kid]

Billy Strings – “Home” – 4/21/23

[Video: Todd Norris]

Billy Strings – “Ernest T. Grass” – 4/21/23

[Video: Todd Norris]

Billy Strings – “Running On Empty” (Jackson Browne) – 4/21/23

[Video: Billy the Kid]

Billy Strings – “Dust In A Baggie” – 4/21/23

[Video: TK Chasing Weird]

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Setlist: Billy Strings | St. Augustine Amphitheatre | St. Augustine, FL | 4/21/23

Set 1: Gone A Long Time, My Alice, The Fire On My Tongue > Secrets, Watch It Fall, Living Like An Animal > Long Forgotten Dream, My Florida Sunshine (Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys), Blues Stay Away From Me (The Delmore Brothers), Psycho (Eddie Noack) > Meet Me At The Creek

Set 2: Everything’s The Same, Likes Of Me (Jerry Reed) > Thunder (Robert Hunter), Manzanita (The Tony Rice Unit), Cabin Song, There Is A Time (The Dillards), The Old Mountaineer (traditional), Home, I’ll Remember You, Love, In My Prayers (William “Billy” Hayes), On The Line > Train 45 (traditional), Ernest T. Grass (The Dillards) > Little Maggie (traditional)

Encore: Running On Empty (Jackson Browne), Dust In A Baggie