Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
illy Strings named his latest album, "Renewal." Perhaps the bluegrass ace (he's considerably more than that though) is signaling with the September release that we're headed for better times given the trauma of COVID.
If Strings is leading the musical charge as we deal with COVID (the house was SRO - and, in fact standing throughout the 130-minute concert - as almost every show is on this tour), then we are in good hands as shown yet again by another excellent outing.
Strings (his real name is William Apostol) is a master genius on acoustic guitar. He's lightning quick at times, but not in a showy way. He's exacting of his instrument, which sometimes sounds like he's playing electric guitar (quite extraordinary going from acoustic to electric sounds actually). No wonder he was the IBMA Entertainer of the Year and Guitar Player of the Year at the September event. Strings is simply lyrical on acoustic.
And then there's his band of Billy Failing (banjo, vocals), Royal Masat (bass, vocals), and Jarrod Walker (mandolin, vocals). Yes, Strings is a wonderful player, but this is not a one-man band.
As usual, Strings had no fears of being upstaged by his bandmates. In song after song, Walker and Failing, in particular, had run after run, adding just the right touch. While less outwardly prominent, Masat ably anchored the bass lines.
Strings got the first of two sets rolling with the fast-paced "Red Daisy" from "Renewal," but he didn't rely on "Renewal" for pushing the new music. He played as many songs from there – five – as he did on his previous disc, "Home."
More than a third of the songs were covers. While he often leans heavily into bluegrass tradition (e.g., Doc Watson), tonight he mixed it up between bluegrass ("John Deere Tractor" by Larry Sparks" and "End of the Rainbow" from Frank Wakefield) to rock (Pearl Jam's "In Hiding," although you wouldn't necessarily think of it as a Pearl Jam song in the hands of Strings) and country (Jerry Reed's "The Likes of Me").
No surprise that Strings certainly wasn't the least bit afraid to play a song through. The very fine combination of "Thirst Mutilator" segueing into "Dust in a Baggie" clocked in at a meaty 22 minutes. He closed the regular set with a 13-1/2-minute "Hide and Seek."
That's a lot of music to absorb without a break, but the genius of Strings is that there is no downtime and no need given the high-end musicianship.
Strings paid homage to Beantown as well with a cover of David Grisman's "Boston Boy" and the closing song of the night, "Big Ball's in Boston." The latter consisted of The Kingston Trio's line "Big Ball's in Boston" with the rest really the Bob Wills-identified "Big Ball's in Cowtown" and a snatch of "I'm Going to Georgia."
In a way, that encapsulated the genius of Strings – paying attention to his local surroundings; a man of many genres (folk, country, jamgrass and bluegrass) and one fantastic musician.
Going forward, there's no doubt that the Strings may well be a musical apostle for the ages.