Returning to Sacramento, Calif., a year after his last visit, the affable and quick finger-picking Billy Strings and his band reinforced their unique brilliant mastery of a performance package that straddles the lines between traditional bluegrass material and psychedelic-tinged improvisational jamming. A truly epic concert, the show included 35 songs. Strings, a dazzling phenom on acoustic guitar who turned 31 on the day before this show, was recently named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year, for the third consecutive time.
The big news on this night was that, while the rest of the band took a set break, Strings stayed onstage and presided over a rare 10-song solo set while sitting on a stool on a small section of the stage that jutted out into the crowd. Before opening that portion of the show with the Delmore Brothers’ 90-year-old “Nashville Blues,” and stating that the solo set was unplanned, Strings told the audience, “I don’t feel like taking a break right now; I’d rather pick for you folks.” So while, his four accompanists did get some rest, Strings wound up staying onstage, delivering three solid hours of musical exploits.
During the spontaneous solo set, which happens on occasion but rarely, such as in Austin Texas, in June 2023 and in Indianapolis, Ind., in July 2022, Strings strummed and sang old-timey selections, including some audience requests, that broadened the knowledge of even the most scholarly bluegrass-schooled members of the audience. The solo set included a first-time-ever performance of “Sleep Baby Sleep,” which included yodeling and was recorded by Jimmy Rodgers in 1927, as well as a rare performance of “Pancho & Lefty,” the beloved Townes Van Zandt tale that inspired Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson’s hit recording of the song. The special set also included the traditional “John Henry” and “Beaumont Rag,” as well as “Hold That Woodpile Down,” a traditional song that traces back to the 1800s. Strings also offered a solo performance of the witty “Catch & Release,” which includes the lyrics, “I had some herb in my bowl and I lit it again; I was jabbered in the jaw and crimson in the eye,” and tells the tale of a Tennessee state trooper who pulled over, then released the pot-smoking miscreant.
After covering Morgan Lee “Dock” Boggs’ “Country Blues,” on which Strings accompanied himself on the clawhammer banjo, Strings looked back over his shoulder to the stage wings and said, “Let’s get the boys back out. Thanks for letting me pick a little bit for you folks. That was fun.” So, after already performing for about two hours, Strings carried on with the rest of the fellows for 11 more selections, including what was a first-ever performance of Tim O’Brien’s “The High Road,” with banjo player Billy Failing on vocals, followed by The Stanley Brothers’ “Nobody’s Love is Like Mine,” on which mandolinist Jarrod Walker provided lead vocals.
Since the early 1970s, when Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, and others formed the pioneering Newgrass Revival and elevated traditional bluegrass into a modern/progressive bluegrass hybrid, some popular performers such as Molly Tuttle, Del McCoury, and Nickel Creek stay more tightly aligned with the formal bluegrass sound, while others, including Leftover Salmon, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Tramples by Turtles intertwine conventional bluegrass with more exploratory instrumental passages. But more than any other, Strings has created a niche that invites and attracts many who’ve coveted the music and Bohemian scenes associated with the Grateful Dead and Phish, while also, as a human lexicon of traditional bluegrass, keeping those old songs relevant by exposing them to an audience that, outside of following Strings, may not necessarily seek out bluegrass music.
All night, each member of the band was given plenty of time to exercise wide latitudes of quick picking, consciousness-expanding, jammed-out recitations and declarations.
And there weren’t just rarities, of course. Also during the course of the show, Strings ran through several tried and true selections including “Turmoil & Tinfoil,” “Long Forgotten Dream,” and third-set closer, “Little Maggie.” Strings and the band also touched on plenty of selections from the three-year-old record, “Renewal,” including the opener, “The Fire on My Tongue,” “Hellbender,” and “Hide and Seek.”
Other legendary artists and selection that the Strings and crew covered included Bill Monroe’s “The Gold Rush,” The Seldom Scene’s “Old Train,” Arthur Collins’ “The Preacher and the Bear,” Eddie Noack’s “Psycho,” and Gary Gene Ferguson’s “Last Day at Gettysburg.” For the encore, the band offered two more traditional numbers: “These Old Blues” followed by “Train 45.”
Note: Only about one-third of the Golden 1 Center’s concert-capacity area (which can accommodate about 19,000) was utilized. The stage was set up toward the middle of the arena, and the setup made use of 14 of 26 first-level sections with the entire second-level curtained off. Still, the show was not sold out and there was plenty of room to move about, except in the front half of the floor area, which was fairly crowded.
Set 1: The Fire on My Tongue, The Gold Rush, This Old World, Hello City Limits, Old Train, Turmoil & Tinfoil, The Old Mountaineer, Doin’ Things Right, Hellbender, Everything’s the Same, Reverend, Long Forgotten Dream
Set 2: Billy Strings solo: Nashville Blues, Hold The Woodpile Down, Sleep Baby Sleep, John Henry, Pancho and Lefty, The Preacher and the Bear, Catch & Release, Beaumont Rag, Last Day at Gettysburg, Country Blues
Set 3: Fire Line, The Lonesome River, Dust in a Baggie, The High Road, Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine, Be Your Man, Psycho, Hide and Seek, Love Like Me, Home of the Red Fox, Little Maggie
Encores: These Old Blues, Train 45