Feedback: Billy Strings brings bluegrass to the beach for Atlantic City shows

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The casino floor was swarming with uncommon patrons — people clad in tie-dye shirts, shawls, denim vests and Grateful Dead trucker hats. Fans of progressive/psychedelic bluegrass guitarist Billy Strings had descended upon the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City for his three-night run from Feb. 16-18. I was fortunate to attend the show on Friday, Feb. 17, which was my first time seeing Billy Strings. I am now counting down the days until he and his band come around these parts again. 

As I took my seat in the Etess Arena and listened to the classic rock being played over the PA system, I wondered how much more immersed I would be if I had been reclined on the side of a grassy hill — rather than in a room which looked suited for a business convention. The space and view of the stage were no matter, however, as soon as Strings and the band struck up the first song.

The set opened with “Hollow Heart” and “Hellbender,” two originals which warmed up the crowd and the band. The five-piece was locked in from the jump and their soaring harmonies elevated the power of the songs. Next came the first cover of the night, “The Likes of Me” by Jerry Reed. Strings is able to pull from across the country and bluegrass catalog without taking the set out of step, a strength made possible by the mastery of the band. Likewise, they nailed a faithful rendition of The Stanley Brothers’ “If I Lose” and breezed through the blistering Bill Monroe track “Bluegrass Breakdown.” 

Other highlights of the first set included “Must Be Seven,” a touching and hopeful song from Strings’ 2019 album “Home.” The audience was treated to a new unreleased track “My Alice,” which made its live debut on Sept. 23 at Renewal Festival 2022. Strings expands the subject and emotion of his storytelling on the song, hinting at dark intentions while the beautifully haunting melody brings it to life. I was eager for the possibility to hear “My Alice,” and it had myself and the crowd captivated. Surely, it will become a standout in Strings’ discography if it is ever put on an official release. 

Fiddler Alex Hargreaves led off a cover of yet another Bill Monroe instrumental, “Ashland Breakdown,” and then the first set was slammed shut with “Away From the Mire.” It is my all-time favorite Billy Strings song because of its impactful melody and transcendent solo. Strings takes the backbone of the song and then continuously reinterprets it, adding electrified effects and perfectly ramping up the pace until it gently falls back into the verse. The impressiveness of “Away from the Mire” is increased tenfold live as Strings and the band let loose for an extended jam. It left the audience in awe as we waited for the band to return for set two.

For those who shy away at the thought of watching an on-stage jam session, the band was able to take the songs for a walk without dragging them along. They were just long enough to be impressive and just short enough to avoid boredom. Part of the enjoyment of these extended jams is when the band finds their way back to a familiar melody or series of notes and the crowd erupts in recognition. If the band takes it into an entirely new song —  such as when “Meet Me at the Creek” morphed into Jeff Austin’s “15 Steps” and then back again — it is an exciting, unexpected twist. 

Following the “Meet Me at the Creek” mashup, three of the band members retreated from the stage, leaving banjo player Billy Failing on stage with Strings — who also donned a banjo — to play the self-titled EP duet “Dos Banjos.” Failing then traded off with mandolin player Jarrod Walker, who joined Strings at a single microphone at the front of the stage. They performed the Prairie Ramblers’ “Feast Here Tonight,” and then the full band huddled around the microphone to lend their voices to “If Your Hair’s Too Long” and “Freedom.” 

The only sign of fallibility all night was when Strings botched a verse in “Dust in a Baggie,” his biggest hit. He remediated the error by joking with Walker without ceasing the music, then settled back into the song. Despite the misstep, the audience never fell out of his hands or the excitement which the song generates. The next day, Strings apologized for the mistake in an Instagram comment and explained that he had been battling a fever and struggled to get through the show. But from his fiery flat-picking, pleasant demeanor and lighthearted interactions with the crowd, one would never suspect anything was amiss. 

Strings opened up the floor for requests and was answered with an unintelligible uproar of song titles thrown at the band. One section of the crowd was able to get in sync and chant “Shady Grove,” to which Strings obliged. “Shady Grove” is a traditional Appalachian folk song, yet it sounded magical played through amplifiers to a crowd of thousands. It made for one of the more memorable moments of the show.

Nearing three hours since the start time, the concert came to a close with a wonderful run of “Know It All” and the wistful John Hartford tune “Today.” Showing no sign of exhaustion, the band finished up with a seven minute version of the upbeat “Doin’ Things Right,” which included a solo from bassist Royal Masat which shook the arena.

After the concert I walked through hallways flanked by glass cases displaying the clothing and instruments of music’s biggest stars whose names were emblazoned on the glass with gold letters. With images of dancing hippies still swirling around in my head, I observed that despite the glitz and glamour of the Hard Rock Casino and music celebrities, there’s something exciting about live music and people having fun. I wondered if through the cacophony of the slot machines outside the venue entrance, patrons could hear the twang of a banjo or the thump of an upright bass.

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