It’s a festive Friday evening here on 6 October in the Bay Area, where the region is experiencing a sweltering heat wave after a pretty mild summer. This could be viewed as fitting, though, since Rocktober is heating up with guitar phenom Billy Strings returning to the Frost Amphitheater on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto. Strings’ career has been on fire over the past few years, with an impressive ascension that’s seen his jamgrass group rise from buzz band to award winners to his current status as genuine rock royalty.
Strings’ 2019 album Home won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album, followed by another nomination for 2021’s Renewal. He also kept winning new fans during the pandemic with some high-profile webcasts and was ready to fly when live music returned. From being invited to perform with Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s supergroup Billy & the Kids to jamming with the likes of Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and performing a duet with Willie Nelson, Strings has been living the dream. The Internet nearly exploded in early September when he got married, and pictures of the wedding band appeared with Strings jamming with Anastasio, Bob Weir, and Les Claypool.
Strings’ career has soared due to his transcendent talent on the guitar and sensational live performances, with numerous fans attending multiple shows on a tour. But he’s also got a down-to-earth demeanor as a sincere music fanatic, which seems to make his fans embrace him as one of their own. He can shred hot bluegrass all day, but he also loves classic rock, grunge, and metal, influencing his setlists with some compelling curveballs.
The six-string gunslinger made his debut appearance at the Frost just over a year ago when his band rolled in for a rocking show on 30 September 2022 that won hearts and minds amongst both devoted fans and curious newbies. It was a notable date in the music scene since it was Trey Anastasio’s birthday, and at least a couple of regional Phish chicks had declared that week that they’d become even more devoted to Billy Strings! That audacious commentary raised some veteran eyebrows, but then Strings ensured everything was right by acknowledging the occasion at the end of the show and playing Phish’s “Back on the Train” as the encore.
After last year’s show, there was also a surprisingly festive scene in the Frost parking lot, with campus authorities allowing a small “Shakedown Street” vendor scene to thrive. Fans kept the party going for over an hour, with a live local band throwing down more jams while attendees enjoyed socializing with post-show libations and the ever-popular nitrous balloons. Hence, the Frost has become known as a fan-friendly venue.
There’s a massive line outside the Frost as door time approaches here in 2023 due to the general admission seating for the show. The sweltering 90-degree heat is challenging, but the venue helps mitigate this by selling decent beer from local breweries like Almanac and Faction. One of the highlights of the first set is the new “California Sober”, the song that Strings and Willie Nelson recorded together as it reflects the duo’s predilection for cannabis over booze. Strings was there to perform it with Nelson at his 90th birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl back in April, and the song feels like it’s already become an instant classic here.
“I’ve had years I don’t recall, but I’m told I had a ball, At least someone did, who looked a lot like me, So I’m California sober as they say, And lately, I can’t find no other way, I can’t stay out and party like I did back in the day, So I’m California sober as they say,” they sing, alluding to giving up alcohol and other vices while maintaining their affinity for the sweet leaf.
“Running” is a hot jam that conjures an energetic hoe-down of sorts around a traditional riff that feels like it might date back for centuries but receives an upbeat modern treatment here with smoking riffage between Strings on guitar, Billy Falling on banjo, Jarrod Walker on mandolin, and Alex Hargreaves on fiddle. Upright bassist Royal Masat holds down the low end with no drummer, but the band still delivers a full, rich sound.
Strings and the band can burn it up on the jamgrass tunes all night, similar to predecessors and peers like Yonder Mountain String Band, the Infamous Stringdusters, and Greensky Bluegrass. But what propels this band to the next level is how Strings will also slip some scintillating psychedelic rock jams into the mix. A case in point here occurs on “End of the Rainbow”, as Strings leads the quintet on a soaring jam that ignites the night. It’s got a bluegrass foundation, but then they open a portal for an extended jam that dazzles the senses, with Strings tearing it up over a fiery groove. The sun has also set now, with the psychedelic light show further enhancing the sonic magic the group are throwing down. It’s here, when Strings shreds on these more psychedelic jams, that his transcendent generational talent level becomes undeniably apparent.
The second set follows a similar formula, except that Strings opens it up solo on banjo, saying that he will perform a Doc Watson tune that’s hard to play, which makes him nervous. He may seem superhuman at times, but it’s refreshing to hear such a talent express some trepidation before playing a tune from one of his primary influences. The set proceeds much like the first set, with one hot jamgrass tune after another, but it all feels better now that the temperature has cooled down a bit.
“On the Line” is a standout number with its upbeat vibe and lyrics that make it feel like a signature theme song as Strings sings, “You can’t stop us from dancing, You can’t stop us from feeling high, We can’t help it if we’d like to stay out all night…” The audience loves this number and the dance party vibe on tunes like the traditional “Come Down the Mountain Katie Daly”. A cover of the Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin” seems to come out of left field to provide a late set breather, like how Billy’s pals in Goose utilized the song in a similar slot in their recent show at the Fox Theater in Oakland. It feels like Strings’ arrangement and vocals conjure a deeper gravitas, though.
The set-closing jam on “Away from the Mire” off 2019’s Home album peaks out in a big way with a bluesy psychedelic jam that takes off sensationally. The band’s dynamic tone science coalesces with a surging alchemy that conjures sonic gold as Strings burns up the fretboard with a frenetic attack that wows the congregation. The jam goes deeper as Strings continues to shred with a mesmerizing effect that provides a genuine spiritual upliftment.
How to follow such a fantastic jam feels like a perplexing question to ponder until Strings and group return for the encore and mix things up by throwing it back to the dawn of the alternative rock era with Mother Love Bone’s seminal “Crown of Thorns”. For those who adore the golden era of grunge as much as Strings clearly does, it’s a moment of electrifying triumph.
Recorded by Mother Love Bone for their first and sadly only LP (due to singer Andy Wood’s untimely departure from the planet in 1990 due to a heroin overdose), the anthemic song came into the mainstream on the Singles soundtrack in 1992 after the Seattle scene had revolutionized the music world forever over the previous couple years. With Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament going on to pick up the pieces and form Pearl Jam from the ashes of Mother Love Bone, “Crown of Thorns” resonates in a way that few other songs from that era can.
Billy Strings’ version of “Crown of Thorns” is pure genius, maintaining the trancelike epic feel of the song with his powerful vocals while including some deep bluesy jamming at the end. He makes it even more impactful as part of a Seattle sandwich, following with jamgrass romps through “Red Rocking Chair” and Bill Monroe‘s “Southern Flavor” before concluding the encore with a fantastic take on Jimi Hendrix‘s “Love or Confusion”. Here, the ensemble transmogrify the Hendrix classic into more of a bluegrass form than they did with “Crown of Thorns”, but it works well as the classic tune still maintains its psychedelic flavor thanks to Strings’ vocals and the signature riffage. That is how you end a hot night with a vast encore to push a show over the top!