Imagine you're at a family pig pickin', just listening to Grandpa's bluegrass on the radio out back. Then your weird uncle decides to play "Dark Side of the Rainbow" for you in his room because "Man, if you know, you KNOW...". That's what it was like to experience Billy Strings' Halloweekend opener at Asheville's Harrah's Cherokee Center on October 29. The light towers around the perimeter of the band were like a psychedelic picket fence. The background and the band's wardrobe were as gray as granny's wedding photo and an impending storm on the horizon. And what a trippy storm was to come.
Set 1 - I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore...
The first set kicked off with Red Wing, a Kerry Mills cover. This was the first time Billy played this as an instrumental. The lyrics would be a great intro to the Dorothy and Oz theme, though. "A shy little prairie maid, Who sang all day a love song gay, As on the plains she'd while away the day." This tune also included the first "Jessica" tease of the evening. This was in honor of the 50th anniversary of Duane Allman's fatal motorcycle accident (one year and three blocks away from where Berry Oakley would later meet a similar fate). We also heard our first "Over the Rainbow" tease of the night during the opener. They then went into Fire On My Tongue, which included instrumental back-and-forth like two bickering aunts, only instead of two Virginia Slims' stained-voices, it was an eargasm between Strings and Jarrod Walker on mandolin.
Next up was Must Be Seven which carried the "house in a storm" theme with "To build a house the big bad wolf could not blow down". Just like at any family barbecue where there's always a cousin with the game on sneakily, I did note a guy in front of us peeking at a college football game while still head bobbing along to the music. Attaboy. Ready for the Good Times to Get Better, written for Crystal Gayle, continued with "I've had enough of this continual rain". And then! They played their first ever rendition of Judy Garland's Over the Rainbow! This movie score is so beloved that Harry Styles actually covered it the next evening in concert (how's that for broad spectrum?) Billy then segued into a cover of Frank Wakefield's End of the Rainbow followed by the instrumental, Ice Bridges. We got a little treat in the switch-up of the opening line of Everything's the Same with "I'm going to Asheville; I'm going to Maine". The line "I'll burn down your orchard and dance in the flame" is reminiscent of the Wicked Witch throwing the fire ball & cackling at the Scarecrow in the forest. Did this scene keep anyone else up at night in childhood, or was that just me? The inimitable Thirst Mutilator then led into Running the Route. Highway Hypnosis featured another "If I Only Had a Brain" tease and the perfect line, "Gone like the wind". Though there's not much that you'd call "traditional" about Billy and his band, the bluegrass customary lack of percussion allowed for a small intimate space on stage. Like a cozy front parlor, except you're actually allowed to sit on the furniture and "touch the things".
Set 2 - Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh, my!
After a set break breather, Set 2 opened with Black Clouds, a String Cheese cover that notes "Thunder clappin' in the treetops" and came back with another "If I Only Had a Brain" tease. We were then thrilled to hear Thunder, a Robert Hunter cover rewritten by Strings to perform with Billy & The Kids at Bill Kreutzmann's birthday this year. I had been dancing at the rail of the upper level and started heading back up the stairs to our gang. But then suddenly, Ride Me High came on and obviously I ran back down to the rail to boogie some more. This this is, of course, a JJ Cale cover, I am a Widespread Panic fangirl, so it will always be a Panic song to me. (I know...sue me...) The song conjured up images of the little Kansan house riding the wave of the tornado and featured yet another "If I Only Had a Brain" tease.
A "Feel Like A Stranger" tease was then found in Hide & Seek. This John Perry Barlow tune was a nice complement to the Hunter tune found earlier. Their lyrics form the two halves of the didactic Dead whole, in my humble opinion. If there's any doubt as to how genuinely trippy this young musician is willing to go, just take a listen to the next tune, Spinning. This freaky narration is evocative of Dorothy awaking, dazed upon landing. "So she took me out into the outer edges of a multiverse..." After a quick wardrobe change from gray to color, like when Dorothy enters Oz, the band busted out with Pink Floyd's Brain Damage for their first time ever. The psychedelic picket fence went wild in rainbow tones. Balloons dropped from the ceiling in every color. "And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear; You shout and no one seems to hear" is more fitting a line than it's ever been.
"And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes; I'll see you on the dark side of the moon..." If the tour you're in doesn't start playing different tunes, and doesn't completely blow your mind, you should hop on the Billy Strings tour, instead. No other musician out there today can challenge your ideas of a genre, especially that of bluegrass, like Billy can. To quote the Wizard of Oz himself, "There's only one of him and he's it. He's the Horse of a Different Color, you've heard tell about."
Words by Erika Rasmussen
Photos by Jerry Friend