Billy Strings | Mission Ballroom | 5/13/23

Article Contributed by Jake Cudek | Published on Monday, May 22, 2023

Mid-May, Billy Strings and his incredible gentlemen of the acoustic tale closed out their three-night Colorado run with a bang. Leading with an end-of-days meteorological event at night one of Red Rocks Amphitheatre that would have had most performers and fanbases ducking for cover and postponing their best laid plans, the band and the devoted dug in and drank deep under the deluge of precipitation and sound. Night two turned out to be more of the expectation as the band delivered a great show on a Colorado spring night under reflective clouds with everyone gathered and sharing in the good vibes that seem to fill this ongoing tour. For night three, everyone gladly took shelter indoors at the intimate Mission Ballroom in the Rhino District of North Denver, where the only unexpected surprises would come from the musical wellspring that is BMFS.

As anticipated with its nearly 4000-person capacity, GA status, fantastic sightlines and incredible sound, the line to get in was well formed multiple hours before door time. One group of excited revelers slept overnight in front of Denver’s premier music destination and for them, the devotion paid off with sweet spots on center rail. The scene and vibe were positive and the physical description of community could be taken in from all directions. From friends reconnecting to new kinships made, those who turn out for these shows are some of the best examples of a healthy shared experience where the music is the cosmic glue sticking us all together and its participants are more than happy to share in the fuzzy rainbow experience.

As the opening of the venue grew closer, so did the line, until eventually no one standing out front could make out where the ophidian assembly terminated. With a buzz much like wild horses at the gate of a race, the time finally hit and with it, the venue filled quickly and calmly with those ready to have another Saturday of their lives doing the thing they love best: Getting More Down!

Alex Hargreaves

As everyone settled, multiple Frank Zappa pieces played over the PA, and for this listener, this just made the WTF factor needle creep closer and closer to the red zone. From the young to the old, a sense of specialness and luck filled the rectangular room as many counted their blessing and thanked the ticketing gods for their providence in getting to see Mr. Wonder in a room this size that is becoming increasingly more difficult to find on the seasonal tour dates, unless you want to go to Europe that is. As per the usual for this environment, with a quarter hour of time before liftoff, the warped voice of Billy came over the PA, announcing, "15 minutes until fuzzy rainbows," eliciting a riotous response that was only outdone with every new announcement at the 5 minute increments that are standard to getting everyone ready.

When THAT moment finally hit, the lights dropped and the voices lifted, and under a shadowed stage and red light, the band walked on, the audience propelling them to greatness even before the first note. As the quintet settled into their respective stage space, Billy, under white light, took a moment to smile and look out over the crowd, high as a kite on the potential of the moment. When the crowd could take their welcome no higher, Billy finally stated simply,” Howdy, Denver” and waved out to the listeners with both hands and an impish grin.

Running a few scales and making sure everyone was ready at the starting blocks, the familiar head of “Fire Line” started off the band’s sixth return to The Mission and the audience let them know all was well and good with the choice. Alex Hargreaves got first turn at the wheel, and employing a ghostly violin voice, put the room on tilt. Strings followed, first with a full flat picking acoustic throwdown and then transitioning to an electric guitar, shredding the room to pieces.

Royal Masat | Mission Ballroom

As the embers of “Fire Line” faded, the engineers stoked the furnace of “Reuben’s Train”. As Royal Masat thumped away at the hypnotic bassline, each of the others took turns drawing lines in between stanzas. At the midpoint, Billy Failing took some extra time and impressed the adventure with an extended solo. Following this, Strings stepped to the mic and shifted the energy from traditional standard to jazz infused insanity, including a tease of Santana’s “Jingo Va” and some seriously psychedelic bluegrass skat. The final couple of minutes went from holding on for dear life to a dream state, filled with soft accents and gentle textures. When this iron horse finally pulled back into the station, the passengers had been treated to a non-stop thirteen-minute thrill ride through multiple peaks and valleys of what would be the longest venture of the night.

Without pause, the band carried the warm endearment of the listeners into the slow introduction of “Thirst Mutilator” and slipped in for a few minutes before turning the tempo northward, setting off into a note-filled, picking charge that is the heart of this tune. Nearing six minutes, the effect pedals came out and the landscape shifted again. Airy, light, floating, the maestros of acoustic color added strokes to the canvas, playing off each other resulting in a melodic composition that finally took further flight on John Hartford’s “Steam Powered Aereo Plane”. Belting out the lyrics with confidence, Failing succeeded at channeling Hartford and hitting the falsetto high notes sending smiles throughout the room, including his bandmates who looked on as he piloted the piece. Jarrod Walker chopped and plucked oh so well in support and solo, all the while maintaining that famously stoic face under the brim of an appropriate blue hat touting the RimRock Airlines endorsement.

Billy Strings and Billy Failing | Denver, CO

By the time the room took its first break, a three song, thirty-six-minute celebration had confirmed everyone’s expectation of just how special this night would be. To confirm it further, Billy stepped to the microphone:

Well now! Give it up for Billy Failing right there! How you folks doing tonight? Vibing out? F*#king right! I feel it, I feel good. I love you guys so much, man. I have been having so much fun in Colorado the last few days. It’s always so much fun to come out here and play. We always have such a blast. It’s been that way ever since we first started, you know, we first started coming out here and playin’ and just kinda realizing the energy was a little different out here and always love to play and you guys always make it so easy for us. Just want to thank you for that. You know, it’s just a good vibe out here.

Meeting every statement with a wave of reciprocation, the audience let Billy and The Gang know that the feelings were mutual. Riding the emotional high of that connection between band and fan that is of obvious importance for the group, the heartfelt “Love and Regret” seemed an appropriate choice. With its bluesy swagger and everyone singing along with Billy, this one was a perfect breather in the wake of the opening frame and showed how well the group can play, both together and as individuals, no matter the cadence or style. Spilling forth the verse in vibrato, Billy put in for blurred finger agility with mixed fanning and lightning-quick scale runs followed by an lengthy exchange with Hargreaves that resulted in the violinist running away with the ending to the appreciation of those hanging on every note.

Following the reset, the sweet serenade shifted right into Hartford’s “Vamp In The Middle” and got the room moving again. A little too short, but still sweet, Hargreaves got the MVP here, receiving a shout out from the band leader at the close, “Alex Hargreaves on the fiddle, y’all!”, the audience concurring contemporaneously.

Jarrod Walker | Denver, Colorado

Introduced as being “inspired by an old pizza cardboard mask, the movie The Patriot and a little piece of ID card that we found underneath a couch,” the instrumental “Libby Phillips’ Rag” was set in motion with a dedication to Jarrod Walker as a mandolin tune, and with that prompt, Walker took everyone on a joyful venture that had many people reeling in laughter from his staggering stringed skills.

Certainly, one of the big surprises of the night came in the form of the traditional cover “I’m Troubled”. Recognized by many as a setlist irregularity with the opening line, Hargreaves' equally rare turn at the microphone was fully acknowledged. Only played three recorded times in the history of Billy Strings, the last being in 2018, and this one being the first performed with the full band ever, this was yet another moment in the night when everyone got the reminder that they had made the right choice spending their night in The Mission. Mel Tillis’ woeful strut “Walk On Boy” followed and just kept the set moving right on “down the road”.

Taking a moment to hydrate, Billy smiled and paused, “Thank you. How you folks doing out there? You still hanging in good with us? You look good. Good looking bunch.”

Billy Strings | Mission Ballroom

Tuned back in, the Strings’ penned “Hollow Heart” sprouted as a steadfast traditional, but morphed at the end into the peculiar before shifting into the third Hartford tune of the set in “I’m Still Here”. Following the added line “Billy (Failing) probably likes The Monkees and I do too”, Failing teased “Last Train to Clarksville” on the banjo while the rest of the band smiled and laughed. Failing lead that train on down the track, eventually transitioning into his original “So Many Miles”. Following a number of short phrases, this one turned the band once again to the exploratory. Finishing the lyrics at about three minutes in, the group broke free and ascended to the upper atmosphere. With oxygen thin and taking on a more angular dimension, the assembly eventually hit dizzying heights quickly and the Failing / Strings engines went full afterburner, bathing the room in effects and spin before releasing the parachutes and returning to earth. Where the midsection went for altitude, the tail went for the land speed record and included a tease of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”, referencing the previous night’s reprieve tune acknowledging the rain-soaked Red Rocks opener and this fact was audibly noted and shared by the spectators. At its end, the room would get over ten minutes of great playing and a whole lot of fun. The lyrically morose but musically energetic “Dealing Despair” sent everyone to break with oxymoronic smiles and googly eyes.

With such a great first frame, the crowd returned from intermission refreshed and ready to dive head first into the closing set of what had already been a phenomenal weekend. Before firing up the sound machine once more, Billy took a moment to recognize the dedication of the Strings family:

Billy Strings | Denver, Colorado

Hey, how you guys doing? Well thank you so much. Like I said earlier, the last couple of nights here in Colorado have been amazing. We were at Red Rocks last night and the night before and man I just….You folks, the resilience to stand out in the rain like that for some live music I just….I congratulate you on your resilience and I am grateful for you folkses support, you know…..’folkses’ (laughs). So uh, I don’t know, I just love you, that’s all. I really love you, Colorado.

Under a veil of applause and coming out strong, set two opened with some old school traditional in “The Cuckoo”.  What made this special was that it was the first version incorporating the whole band since November 2019 and the first rendition by Billy since the fall of last year. This obvious nod to those in the know sent many into an intoxicated stupor of jubilation and delirium. The second verse even got a card playing reference to Willie Nelson, widening the grins of those enjoying themselves.

Billy Failing | Mission Ballroom

“Running” took second place and kept the energy high. The rail bouncing and the hall shaking, this one was played to perfection at a breakneck pace and afforded each performer an opportunity to steer. The reflective prison original “While I’m Waiting Here” followed and contained all the ingredients of a lasting singer / songwriter piece. Making it even better was the deviation at the midsection, starting with a meandering embrace and eventually vacillating into distorted vibration that held onto both uplifting construct and gritty conflict simultaneously, Billy maintaining the stringed softness while Failing possessed the darkside. With a minute left, the whole dropped back to the warm caress and Walker finished off with a delightful mandolin tinkering. Without a pause, Billy opened his inner Tony Rice and poured forth a great version of  “The Likes of Me”.

Pausing to connect with the audience again, Billy seized the moment to share in his delight:

Billy Strings | Denver, Colorado

I look out there and I see a lot of beautiful faces and a lot of familiar ones too. A lot of friends all up in here. Like you know, I think the first time I ever came to Colorado in my life…..actually I know this (to be true), the first time I came to Colorado in my life I ended up at some backyard pickin’ party with you right there, Roach (pointing into the crowd) and I have seen you everywhere, man.

This proclamation once again illustrated that the connection between the stage and the audience runs much deeper than ticket sales and canned performances and is rather built on community, camaraderie, and connection in a space that is more inner than exterior.

Calling on the spirit of The Red Headed Stranger, Billy offered up “a little, pretty song” in “Hands On The Wheel”, pronouncing many of the lyrical syllables with the same intonation Willie delivers on a nightly basis. Beautiful, light, simple, Willie would have been proud to witness this rendition and his work being carried on by this next generation of talent. Swinging to the other end of the emotional spectrum, Billy threw in another original with the despondent “Nothing’s Working” and at its end, the quintet got a warm reception on both calls.

Alex Hargreaves | Denver, CO

Calling out a bit more bluegrass for the listeners’ pleasure, “John Hardy” filled the next slot and got the Appalachia treatment in spades. Ripping it out, everyone got a shot in the spotlight, with the energy ramping up with every rotation then ending with everyone panting, drenched, and hearts wide open.

Royal Masat | Mission Ballroom

Enveloping The Mission in weirdness, the opening oddity of “Wargasm” had many jumping up and down in anticipation. With Masat drawing out a long disfigured line on the low end, this signal sent out a call to arms and put everyone on notice. Getting into the anti-war proclamation, Billy’s phrases dueled with darkness and when the music took over, it had a full head of steam that leveled the hall. Riding high on eight minutes of electricity, ecstasy, and elation, the band shifted flawlessly into David Grisman’s “E.M.D. (Eat My Dust)”. With this being only the fourth time ever played since its introduction last year and the first one since December, no one would have been able to tell, the band’s execution spot on like they had been playing night after night for years. Hargreaves poured everything he had into this one. Failing’s rolls rolicked with a speed that could have easily induced carpal tunnel syndrome just by watching him dole it out. Billy’s flatpicking took advantage of the full neck of his six string and even incorporated some play on harmonics without losing time. Walker set out to do “The Dawg” justice and accordingly, justice was served.

Dedicated as “one from me to you”, Billy handed over the sweet ballad “Love Like Me” and this simple tale left everyone warm, calm, and cordial. Relative rarity and the closest thing to a Grateful Dead song still being played in the band’s rotation, traditional “Dark Hollow” got heavy applause and was two minutes of fun for those yearning for Billy to give up some Garcia tunes on the regular. At its end, Billy took a minute to introduce the band:

Billy Strings | Denver, Colorado

Well, I’ll take just a second here. I know we have probably called them out throughout the evening, but I do just want to take one second to introduce you to these folks. Most of you probably know ‘em by now, but uh, I just want to let you know that these fellas up here, standing on either side of me SHO’ CAN PICK! I am so honored to be standing up here with these fellars right here. Over here on the fiddle, Alex Hargreaves. Right here on the five-string banjo, this is Mr. Billy Failing. Here on the big upright bass, the backbone of the whole damn operation, the foundation upon which we stand, Mr. Royal Masat right there. Down there in a blue hat, yeah! Playing the mandolin, that is Mr. Jarrod Walker. And I’m Bill, it’s a thrill. But you know that. Y’all already know that.

With every introduction, the audience showered the stage in appreciation, spawning smiles across the faces of the humble gentlemen as they waved to everyone in acknowledged return. As the recognition subsided, another Apostel original “Long Forgotten Dream” spilled forth. Packed with on point harmonies and feel-good fillers, this buoyant vision bounced from beginning to end and set the crowd up in all the right ways for the closer of the night.

Billy Strings | MIssion Ballroom

The final wind up of the evening came in the form of a nearly thirteen-minute version of “All Fall Down”. Starting off otherworldly, the sound mix moved about the cube until the loose form came into double vision like a mirage on the horizon. As it solidified and the porcine subject came into play, the audience pushed the band. Synergizing vocal effect over stringed strangeness, vertigo continued to settle in over the mass. Wah traded for disfigurement, abnormal became the norm and the audience took comfort in the uncomfortable, loving every minute of the band’s challenge to their serenity. Touching back on the lyrics for a whispered moment, Billy continued to shift the space into a possessed vocal jam that penetrated the veil between reality and the surreal until pulling everyone free from the nosedive of insanity with an abrupt stop, leaving the whole room reeling at the unreal and blissed out to the Nth degree. The shared moment in eminence afterglow even got to Billy, leaving him literally shouting to the crowd before walking off, “Thank you so F&#king much Denver! We love you! Thank you so much!”

Jarrod Walker | Mission Ballroom

Returning to the stage to hang their hats on yet another great performance, the Jimmy Martin classic “Sophronie” got the encore slot. With satisfaction resounding from both sides of the stage, these bad boys of jamgrass took to the edge of the stage, soaking in the fanfare and took a final bow of appreciation to the lauded reception of everyone in the house.

Royal Masat | Denver, CO

Like so many other shows at The Mission, fans poured out of its main doors glowing, floating, and downright beaming while simultaneously thanking and being thanked by staff for yet another night of magic. The general consensus was that Billy and his brothers had pulled it all off once again and although the statement goes “Never miss a (insert day of the week here) show”, what seems to be proving to be more and more the rule in the world of Strings and his Apostels is “Never miss a Billy show..especially in Colorado!”