As the week winds to a close, we are reflecting back with some thoughts about the undoubtedly historic run of musical performances that just occurred this past week at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY: Billy Strings’ “The Deja Vu Experiments,” which saw the bluegrass guitarist and his quartet play six consecutive shows at the rock palace, live-streamed to what was reported as over 30,000 viewers tuning in.
These Déjà Vu shows of course follow in the long-passed footsteps of The Grateful Dead, who performed on these same dates their own six night run at The Cap in 1971. But this week, the bridge across time and space was made, with the legendary venue being the vessel and sublime, musical creativity being the substance to power it up.
Given the connection, it is no surprise that Billy and the band paid ample homage to The Dead throughout the entirety of the run. Performing at least three Grateful Dead originals or songs made popular by Jerry each night, the Deja Vu shows saw Billy Strings play some tunes known to be in their repertoire, but also some amazing debuts.
For their loyal viewership, diehard Billy Strings fans were rewarded at the peak of the final night of the Capitol Theatre livestream run with a debut performance of “Help On The Way,” “Slipknot,” and “Franklin’s Tower.” Surely, fans must have been hollering at their TVs no louder during this unexpected moment in which the bluegrass foursome performed, with impressive virtuosity, the Dead’s most famous three-song-swing.
All in all, the entirety of these six consecutive nights of performance showed a resolutely new level of musicianship from Billy Strings and his band, which is simply to say they have never sounded this cohesive as a unit. As we watched and listened to every one of the many classic instrumental bluegrass tunes they covered throughout the run, from Tony Rice masterpieces like “Tipper” and “Manzanita” to older staples like the rousing “Ernest T. Grass” or the downright beautiful “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz,” the amount of practice and orchestration that went into preparing for these shows was brilliantly evident. Not a single solo seemed to miss a beat, and breakdown sections matched and rivaled vocal harmonies for a most impressive feature.
The improvisational achievements of these six nights are staggering all on their own. Tune into the chatter that’s been going on in the Billy Strings fanbase over the past week, and you’ll see that most agree the “Ride Me High” played on the second evening and which clocked in at nearly sixteen minutes, stands now as the most dynamic version they have played to date. Other musical behemoths which showed the fullest extent of the quartet’s improvisational mastery was the extraordinary cover of Jeff Austin’s “15 Steps” on Sunday night, and the far-reaching version of the classic instrumental “Gold Rush” on Tuesday night (though the best part of that latter segment is the rocking transition into the follow up “Bringing In The Georgia Mail”). Even the more ballad-oriented numbers, like the “Taking Water” that kicked off the final night, were improvised upon in new, creative ways.
These and a bunch of other jams from the week not only witnessed Billy Strings diving deeper into his own personal exploration of guitar sounds than ever before (and boy, did it get weird at these Cap shows), but they also let band members Jarrod Walker, Royal Masat, and Billy Failing prove once again why they are one of the tightest and most invigorating ensembles on the bluegrass scene today.
Yet even still, the most welcome part of this historic run of shows was the sheer amount of new original material performed. Personal favorites are spread out across the entire run. The very first night saw a magnificent debut of “Love and Regret,” a gorgeous song in its own right but made so much even more so by being sandwiched magnificently in the middle of a huge debut of “Dark Star.” “Fire Line,” arguably one of the coolest debuts, kicked off set two of night five and boasted a grunge-rock sounding composition with a wicked main riff and some incredible, albeit intense, lyrics.
While the other ‘experimental’ side of this six-night Capitol Theatre run—the ESP experiments in which various musical guests tried to recreate images channeled telepathically to them by BS fans—didn’t go off as spectacularly as hoped, they were still a neat segment to tune into at the end of each evening. Billy’s own personal words were: “Nobody really nailed it, but some funny coincidences have happened.”
One such funny coincidence was Oteil Burbridge, who guest interviewed at the end of night one, drawing culinary images that were intriguingly similar to the poster art of Kitchen Dwellers, the jamgrass quartet that performed just after the Cap shows on the second and third nights. Beyond that, it was just good fun to see a few other heavy hitters in the scene, such as Mickey Hart and Dave Bruzza of Greensky, shoot the breeze with Billy and his band in The Capitol Theatre’s inner sanctum.
Clearly this enigmatic and ever promising jamgrass outfit is riding a musical high right now, as the week is not over, and they’ve already announced more livestream performances set for the near future. And, while we’re always eager for more, it’s worth recognizing that these livestream shows from The Capitol Theatre are an important milestone in the journey of this still growing band. We imagine that much like The Grateful Dead in February 1971 (who within the next year would be touring Europe and making one of the most popular live albums of all time), Billy Strings and his band have even more amazing things waiting down the line.