I don’t know what normal is anymore. So, I am still a little dumbfounded when people say we are getting back to normal. Or, their slightly more pessimistic counterparts, who assure me that this is the new normal. Tuesday night, seeing Billy Strings play at The Champlain Valley Expo outside of Burlington, VT felt like it landed right between those two paradigms; seizing on the optimistic return to what was, and infecting what is with that same sense of buoyancy.
The Expo is a behemoth, hosting events as big as the county fair, Neil Young and Phish as recently as 2011. And yet, with a few different stage positionings, my mind left a void pre-show when considering what type of turnout, I’d see. After all, the last time I saw Billy Strings live was at a festival setting in 2019. Maybe a couple hundred people? What could have changed? Furthermore, I saw him play to an empty theater during the heart of the pandemic (1.0), so none of the evidence led me to be prepared for the size of the crowd coming to see Billy and his band.
Even as we arrived, I thought that the number of cars entering the bottleneck before being woefully led to the front of the auto corral was too small for such a cavernous space. But once I was standing in line on the edge of the field, overlooking the fairgrounds, the growth of this young super star hit me with every member of the crowd that I could see on the horizon.
Opening the evening with ‘Old Home Place’, albeit a cover of The Dillards, was the first of many ways that Billy and his band recognized Burlington’s most famous quartet. While Phish’s foray into this Bluegrass standard can be a juxtaposition to their normal prog rock sound, for Billy Strings, it was the type of music that has put him on the map; not just with bluegrass purists, but with a wider reaching jamband crowd, made crystal clear by the diverse group of people bobbing their heads to his sounds.
While ‘Old Home Place’ made a statement of reverence towards far reaching branches on his family tree, and a brief foray into the hook of ‘First Tube’ was appreciated by all who could hear it, it was the remainder of the first set that reminded us all why we had made the effort to come see this concert, to return to this feeling once again. A fluid mix of originals and a few deeper-cut covers allowed Billy and his band to weave into traditional bluegrass phrasing and out into the psychedelic ether of space and rhythmic independence. Nearly every song in the first set trailed into an open segue, sometimes feverish, sometimes minimal, but always engaging to our ears. It felt as if he recognized the collective energy, even alluding to it later in the show during some stage banter, but simply telling us in the first set that “this is cool as hell man.” We all felt it Billy, and the choice to play the newly revived ‘Thunder’, penned by longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, at the end of the first set, gave a picture into who else Billy holds in the highest regard. While it wasn’t a noodle filled homage to the Dead, their influence could be heard in both in the way the song has come to sound under the musical direction of Bill Kreutzmann as well as how Billy shaped the set. All set long, he didn’t want to let the energy cease with too many breaks, instead using the rhythm of the music to maintain a healthy rhythm for the crowd. He was playing us in the same way the band was collectively playing their instruments. Space was granted when necessary and ebbs allowed for a collective in-breath before we all felt the power of the four men on the stage as one.
I was pleasantly surprised when the band chose to take a set break after ‘Thunder’ and was reminded, once again, as to how excited we all were to be there together. A few families left as well as the couples we have all seen at two set shows; ill prepared for a marathon of music, watching a band they only know from their single.
But for the vast majority that stayed, the second set was more of the same, but with lights! Again, Billy and his bandmates kicked off the set with a cover that Phish plays, Del McCoury’s ‘Beauty of My Dreams.’ Listening to the way that the quartet had stripped away the progressive rock edge that Phish brings to this song, bringing it back to its more traditional roots in blues, reminded me that these four young men have musical perspective that leads to our pleasure. Their playlists are full and diverse and while they may not be creating their own genre, they are blending those that came before them in ways that nobody else is today. These nods to Phish were also a deserved humblebrag for the band. Simultaneously they were crediting the band that took that same stage only a few years ago, while also paying homage to the founders of bluegrass; all the while showing that they are one of the few bands that can straddle that line while picking a banjo, a guitar, a mandolin, and a double bass!
If the subtle nods to Phish weren’t getting a rise from the entire crowd, the latter part of the second set was more obvious in its ballyhoo. After the band played a series of their own tunes, in which the vocal note bending and scale jumping, the true trademarks of Billy’s range, were played and a false set end with the radio friendly ‘Away From the Mire’ bookended this section, the band launched into ‘Pyramid Country’ taking it into psychedelia and leaving Kentucky behind. As my ears strained, thinking I was hearing ‘2001’ teases, I was clubbed over the head with the night's biggest Phish bustout, a cover of ‘Gotta Jiboo.’ If I’m being honest, when Jiboo is played at a Phish show, I usually tune out until the jam, but with Billy and the band taking it on, I had to laugh and dance through all the verses and the chorus.
The double encore of ‘Nellie Kane’ and ‘If Your Hair’s Too Long’ cemented this show as both an honoring of Phish and an understanding that Billy is bringing all kinds of people to bluegrass. As he told us from the stage, Billy Strings along with all of us was “feeling the vibe! It’s right here!” Tonight, it was. The band felt the freedom that the crowd was providing and filled it with music close to Burlington’s heart, while injecting a little of their own blue(grass) blood as well. We all left stronger for it.