Bill Kreutzmann brought the Kids—featuring his newly adopted kin Billy Strings—out to play at one of the world’s most hallowed stages last night for a sold-out Monday show at Red Rocks Amphitheater. The concert marked the Grateful Dead drummer’s side project’s return to Red Rocks for the first time since September 18th, 2015.
Anticipation was high when the group took the stage just before 7 p.m., after a short stint tuning and final sound checking the band dove into the staple, “China Cat Sunflower”. To keep the crowd guessing, they did not pair the tune with its sister song, “I Know You Rider”, but rather graced us with some newly-reinvigorated Robert Hunter poetry, along with Strings’ new musical arrangement that pairs perfectly into the Grateful Dead‘s sound like “Thunder” and lightning. Perhaps Jerry Garica and Strings’ similar roots in bluegrass, mixed with psychedelia, is what gives them a common thread.
Billy & The Kids, Billy Strings, James Casey – “China Cat Sunflower” – Morrison, CO – 7/12/21
The lyrics for “Thunder” by the late Robert Hunter were given to Billy Strings by Bill Kreutzmann last year. What an honor it must have been to be able to collaborate with the quintessential American poet, even posthumously. With the Billys together on stage, it was a matter of if—not when—the song would appear during the two-night run, marking only its second time played on the big stage.
Audiences also got another up-close look at Billy’s rustic guitar that his “grandpa made in prison way back in the early ’60s.” The ax’s bridge is branded with the number “33”, matching the tattoo on Billy’s right arm, in honor of his grandfather’s race car number. Billy showed us once again that his versatile guitar chops do not stop at his roots in bluegrass and flat-picking, as he brandished his solid-bodied munitions with expertise.
Bass aficionado Reed Mathis then led the band into “Brown-Eyed Women”, another tune featuring nature’s mighty rumble, luckily for the folks in Morrison last night the sky was clear and the sun was shining. James Casey showed his prowess as he puckered up to his reed for a sax solo and left us in awe, all while seemingly smiling through his brass appendage.
The joyful crowd was then graced with a surprising deviation from the Dead’s catalog. For the fourth song and respective fourth lead singer in the show, Casey sang us “Ain’t No Bread In The Breadbox”, a tune popularized by Norton Buffalo in 1991 and picked up by Jerry Garcia Band. Then, As if the Dead’s catalog wasn’t extensive enough, we were taken through some jam-band estuaries when they arrived at a rare, folky Phish song that was right up Billy Strings’ alley for “Back on the Train”.
Billy & The Kids, Billy Strings, James Casey – “Ain’t No Bread In The Breadbox” – Morrison, CO – 7/12/21
[Video: D Ragoose]
Guitarist Tom Hamilton then guided us through an exceptional performance of the Garcia original, “Deal”. Hamilton took us all the way down the neck and back on his solo, as the light show debuted at the first sign of dusk.
The band then peppered in another tasteful cover as they slowed it down for the Bob Dylan tune “Positively 4th Street”. They then took a deep, dark turn as keyboardist Aron Magner leads us for the first time of the night for “Feel Like A Stranger.” The Disco Biscuits keyboardist played a little game of musical chairs behind his plethora of musical devices, as the rest of the crew jammed their way into the set break with a psychedelic exploration of sound and light, that was accompanied by FANS‘ visual effects dubbed over the video that only added to the hallucinatory experience. All the while, Kreutzmann looked right at home as he waved his sticks between the big Red Rocks, 43 years after his and the Grateful Dead’s first performance on the stage.
Billy & The Kids, Billy Strings, James Casey – “Positively 4th Street” – Morrison, CO – 7/12/21
[Video: Music City Maven]
Set two started with the familiar “Scarlet Begonias” that had the crowd, young and old, dancing in jubilee to the Grateful Dead’s music. Things took a slight detour through the catalog of Jimmy Cliff for a well-timed “Sitting In Limbo”, a song frequented by both Jerry Garcia and Billy Strings in their solo endeavors.
Billy & The Kids, Billy Strings, James Casey – “Scarlet Begonias” – Morrison, CO – 7/12/21
Veteran drummer Kreutzmann then slyly adorned himself with a tube leading to a source of hydration in preparation for the expansive “Eyes of the World” that is known for lasting an eternity on stage. Billy Strings really started flexing his electric chops during his solos on the spacious tune.
Billy & The Kids then went into a beautiful rendering of “Bird Song” followed by Casey and Hamilton dueling their way through a segue into “The Other One” with Strings on vocals. They then dabbled back into a very pleasing “Bird Song” reprise which served as a delicate outro to a compelling musical movement.
An emotional highlight of the evening came as Strings belted out a powerful performance of “So Many Roads” before set two ended with a roar rather than a whimper with a very fun version of Everly Brothers‘ “Wake Up Little Susie” that had everyone dancing and smiling properly to the primal Dead-era throwback.
Billy & The Kids, Billy Strings, James Casey – “So Many Roads” – Morrison, CO – 7/12/21
Billy Strings hit his trusty pipe once more before exiting the stage while the smoke machines showed they weren’t afraid to puff during the brief break as well. The crowd didn’t flinch when set two ended, but rather had a brief chat with their fellow Red Rockians for a short bit before the first howls from the crowd brought everyone’s attention back to stage.
Special guests on top of special guests Jeff Franca (Thievery Corporation) and Jason Hann (The String Cheese Incident) joined the titular Bill for an ethereal version of “Drums” with Franca on the drum kit and Hann on djembe in a truly unique encore decision. The rest of the completed ensemble then rejoined the stage and went into “Fire on the Mountain” as the drummers remained in the spotlight, before ending the night with an unashamedly American “U.S. Blues” that had the crowd moving around vigorously like a proper rock-n-roll show should.
Billy & The Kids, Billy Strings, James Casey, Jason Hann, Jeff Franca – “U.S. Blues” – Morrison, CO – 7/12/21
[Video: Music City Maven]
After introductions and bows, Strings hit the bowl one last time before leaving the stage. The crew will be returning to Morrison, CO tonight at 7 p.m. MT for another night of blissful vibes and tasteful jams.
A special thanks to FANS for the excellent streaming production, and for spreading the concert experience to those who were unable to attend. You can order your stream of tonight’s show here.
Scroll down to check out a gallery of images from Billy & The Kids’ return to ticketed performances at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Monday, featuring special guests Billy Strings and James Casey, courtesy of photographer Elliot Siff.
Setlist: Billy & The Kids w/ Billy Strings, James Casey | Red Rocks Amphitheatre | Morrison, CO | 7/12/21
Set One: China Cat Sunflower > Thunder, Brown-Eyed Women, Aint No Bread In The Breadbox > Back on the Train, Deal, Positively 4th St, Feel Like A Stranger
Set Two: Scarlet Begonias > Sitting In Limbo, Eyes Of The World, Bird Song > The Other One > Bird Song, So Many Roads, Wake Up Little Susie
Encore: Drums  > Fire on the Mountain , US Blues 
 w/ Jeff Franca and Jason Hann