Billy Strings performs live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado on September 26, 2020. A Coda Cornerstone Collection.
If any moment captured the weird disconnect of popular culture in 2020, it was Billy Strings’ performance of “Highway Hypnosis” at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre on September 26. The song was a highlight of the acoustic guitarist’s breakthrough album, “Home,” released a year earlier. Here was a chance for Strings’ quartet to build on the bluegrass momentum and rock ‘n’ roll energy of the studio recording with longer, looser solos. And so they did, as colorful, special-effects lighting panned through the dry-ice smoke drifting across the stage.
The four musicians ended the song with a flourish, and one expected a huge roar from the crowd. Instead there was only an eerie silence as the camera tilted up to reveal the sloping rows of empty seats — deserted but for three camera operators. There it was: 2020 in a nutshell. You had a band that deserved an audience out there somewhere that wanted to cheer, but the year of COVID-19 made that impossible.
The growth of every musician’s career must be tracked not only by each studio recording but also by each tour.
At least we have a valuable document of this band at this stage of their evolution. The growth of every musician’s career must be tracked not only by each studio recording but also by each tour. And if the Billy Strings Band hadn’t been invited to play this empty arena outside of Denver, an important chapter in their story may have gone missing. After all, they will never be at this particular point in their lives again.
Billy Strings, born William Apostol in Michigan in 1992, first made his reputation as an acoustic guitar-picking prodigy. Even as he mixed more and more rock ‘n’ roll into his string-band format, his quick, accurate fingers were the main attraction. But with “Home,” he began to write songs worthy of his virtuosity with the help of such co-writers as Ronnie McCoury, Jon Weisberger and Aaron Allen. During this concert, the band played nine of the 15 songs on “Home,” providing the looser, expanded framework we expect from live versions.
It’s obvious that this is a real band. Mandolinist Jarrod Walker, acoustic bassist Royal Masat and banjoist Billy Failing are all fine soloists themselves, but more importantly, they listen to one another and make sure that their comping fits all the other moving parts.
“Highway Hypnosis” begins as an uptempo-bluegrass road song with each soloist carried along by the synchronized pistons underneath. When the banjo solo comes, though, everyone shifts downward smoothly into a quieter, sparser passage with each instrument adding a different color to the abstracted reverie. When they shift upward again, with Strings stomping on a foot pedal to send his guitar wildly whooshing left and right, all four players are still working as one.
This band balances that mixture of sounds — older, backroads chiming and modern-highway edginess — as expertly as anyone.
When the quartet is playing obscure bluegrass chestnuts by Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers, the instruments are presented effects-free, as if to prove how cleanly and accurately they can play. But even when Strings adds a crunchy distortion effect to his guitar on “Home,” “Away from the Mire” or the instrumental “Pyramid Country,” you can still hear the wooden-box sound beneath the roaring rock ‘n’ roll. This band balances that mixture of sounds — older, backroads chiming and modern-highway edginess — as expertly as anyone.
Geoffrey Himes wrote about pop music on a weekly basis in the Washington Post from 1977 to 2019 and has served as a senior editor at No Depression and Paste magazines. He has also written about pop music, jazz, theater, film, art and books for Rolling Stone, Oxford American, The New York Times, Smithsonian, National Public Radio, DownBeat and other outlets. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2016), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards. His book on Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.,” was published by Continuum Books in 2005. He’s currently working on a book for the Country Music Hall of Fame.