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Review: Billy Strings at SGHR

Billy Strings brought his psychedelic-tinged bluegrass troupe back to the Southgate House Revival this past Thursday night. This is the band’s second show at the Southgate House Revival this year, third in the area when you add in the June appearance at Hamilton’s Whimmydiddle, and fifth time I’ve seen them this year when you include the John Hartford Memorial Festival and Columbus BrewGrass Festival. So, I didn’t think I’d have much more to say following Thursday night’s show. That turned out to be true, but not because I’ve already said it all, but because I was left speechless by how far the band has come in just a few months.

Billy (William Apostol) with bandmates Billy Failing (banjo), Jarrod Walker (Mandolin) and Royal Masat (bass) ran through a surprising number of covers in their two sets. The first stanza started with Jimmy Martin’s “Freeborn Man” and also included the Grateful Dead staple “Me and My Uncle” and jazz standard “Summertime” while Failing was backstage making a banjo repair, among others. But the highlights were the extended jams in the band’s original instrumental “Black Clouds” that included some of the most impressive improvisation I’ve seen from the band. Billy switched to a distorted/reverb-y sound during portions of the jam, a tactic he used often throughout the night to bring their jams outside the typical world of bluegrass. The spaced-out jamming returned as an extended intro into Little Maggie, where the band teased Phish’s “Bathtub Gin” and “Rift.” Based on discussions before the show started, there were a lot of Billy Strings first-timers in the crowd but there were nothing but believers watching at this point.

A short set break ended with the band jumping right into another original instrumental “Pyramid Country,” that saw a couple minutes of jamming on The Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” A night of many covers ended strong with four out of five originals including “So Many Miles,” “Thirst Mutilator,” “Dealing Despair,” and fan-favorite “Meet Me at the Creek.” So Many Miles is sung and written by Billy Failing, and he used this opportunity to once again provide banjo-work that left the crowd cheering and smiling. And the night’s version of Creek stretched out to 10+ minutes and provided the band one last opportunity to bring the crowd to a fever pitch with frenetic improvisational jamming. After a quick step off stage, the band came up for an encore for Billy to provide some encouraging words regarding the shooting in Cincinnati earlier that day and give a touching tribute with a beautiful rendition of another The Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun.”

As wonderful as Billy Strings’ set was, I’d be remiss to not mention The Wooks from Lexington who opened the show. The alt-country/bluegrass band had a fun bouncy feel to them, and I commented to a friend that they gave off a vibe of The Band or Little Feat. This was affirmed when they covered The Band’s “Shape I’m In,” and the whole set was fun and I’m looking forward to catching them again the next time they’re in the area.