Billy Strings leads his band during a sold-out performance at Pier Six Pavilion in Baltimore on July 3, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
It takes an exceptional and fearless musician to emerge as a sensation at a time when entertainment is consumed rapidly and tastes can evolve by the moment.
But at just 29 years old, William Apostol — who’s widely known by his stage name Billy Strings — is blending bluegrass music with other genres and improvising it in the ways of only the most pioneering artists before him.
In doing so, this thrilling guitar player is helping create new fans of bluegrass music and expanding its boundaries, and he’s achieving that by both taking risks and paying respects to the influences that have helped shape and color his sound and that have inspired his undertakings.
Playing the second of back-to-back sold-out nights at Baltimore’s Pier Six Pavilion, Strings made a strong case the evening of July 3 that he’s deserving of the hype he’s garnered as one of today’s most entertaining, engaging acts, using two rich sets culled from his own catalogue as well as covers of some of his favorite songs by some of his own favorite musicians.
Fans were lined up toward Pratt Street at one entrance, and people were backed up over the foot bridge off East Falls Avenue as partly cloudy skies and a dense mugginess embellished a visually stimulating dusk and people shifted out of the lot or emerged from downtown establishments to get the night underway in earnest.
At 8:30 sharp, Billy and his squad took the stage, a stark contrast from an evening earlier that saw a long weather delay due to wild storms tearing through the Mid-Atlantic. Double-fisting cans of Thirst Mutilator hop water, a new partnership of his with Michigan-based Short’s Brewing, Strings raised two tallboys in the air and let out a howl to kick off the romping evening in the Charm City.
Backed by his trusty, outstanding cast of supporting musicians — Billy Failing on the banjo, Royal Masat playing bass, Jarrod Walker on mandolin, and Alex Hargreaves on violin — Strings would use the opening three songs on Sunday night to sample each of his solo studio albums.
Stream Billy Strings’ most recent studio album, 2021’s Renewal, via Spotify:
“Meet Me at the Creek” (from 2017’s Turmoil & Tinfoil), “Secrets” from his newest release (2021’s Renewal), and then “Taking Water” (the opening track to 2019’s Home), served as a powerhouse trio of songs to pick up where the band had apparently left off the night before, a performance that went on to midnight after wicked thunder and lightning had sent attendees seeking shelter several hours earlier.
“Taking Water” segued into “Thirst Mutilator,” and by the time it wrapped up, Billy had a massive joint hanging from his lips, and a peculiar gleam in his eye. “… it’s the last gig of this leg … let’s fucking rage,” read his Instagram account in the afternoon, and — while his beverage choice was a responsible one — it looked as though he’d found other ways to enhance the occasion.
A kaleidoscopic light exhibit and real-time visual projection gave glow to the packed Pier Six venue and Billy’s breed of brisk, invigorating bluegrass transformed the space into a cosmic hoedown the likes of which Baltimore might have a hard time recreating.
Trading off leads with the rising stars around him on the stage, Strings as a bandleader embodied so many of the qualities that characterize a traditional bluegrass performance — his signature breakneck “chords” to close out sections of songs, his visual cues with his band mates and his endearing drawl.
Though he was born in Michigan and returned to The Great Lake State, he spent some of his formative years in Kentucky. All the while, he was being introduced to bluegrass music by his family members, including an uncle who was deeply involved in the Michigan scene.
That upbringing most certainly informed him and perhaps even armed him to write pieces like the exquisite, flowing “Love and Regret” from his latest album. But his interests were indeed varied and modern as a youngster, and compositions like “Heartbeat of America” from the same record showed off not just his invention as a songwriter but also his ability to use distortion to carry a jam into an otherworldly territory, and in doing so he impressively expands the idea of “jam grass.”
Watch the official music video for Billy Strings’ 2021 single “Love and Regret” via his official YouTube channel:
And with a dive into numerous covers to load the back half of the first set on Sunday in Baltimore, Strings shed light on numerous important influences, including a beautiful take on The Stanley Brothers’ “Rank Strangers” and a twisting, red-hot version of “Whisper My Name” by New Grass Revival.
These tracks didn’t just show Billy at his best, but his heralded band too — Failing’s face was focused and pensive, but his fingers on his right hand never stopped and picked at racing speeds; meanwhile, Jarrod Walker — with his swaying body and repetitive cranking — showed himself to be one of the more entertaining mandolinists one might see on a stage today, and it seems he’d have to be to keep up with the pace and the spirit of Strings and his seemingly infinite youthful zest.
Bass player Royal Masat was classy and businesslike even in footing some of the funkiest numbers of the night, and, with a similar demeanor, Hargreaves managed to provide some of the most stirring sounds of the entire presentation, applying timeless fiddle texture that only made Strings’ adventurous compositions or interpretations that much more fascinating, especially so during a deep-diving take on the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Dig A Little Deeper In the Well,” complete with supporting aquatic-theme visuals on the digital screens.
The rewarding first set culminated with a cover of John Hartford’s “Today” before another epic endeavor, “Wargasm,” a single Strings released in mid-2021 with rapper RMR and clearly a demonstration of his eagerness to expose bluegrass to potential new listeners and his willingness to collaborate with a wide range of musicians.
After a deserved break, the stage was lit up in a Maryland flag design and its unmistakable red, yellow, black, and white. Returning to the stage, Billy was likely still riding the high of an amazing week leading up to his stormy Baltimore visit — just days prior in New York City, he’d been joined by Trey Anastasio at his Pier 17 show.
But who’s to say there wasn’t more to his buzz?
“I’m feeling … not like I did earlier,” Strings said like a big kid, smiling from ear to ear, eyes bright and wide and staring into space for a second. “Thank you so much for coming.”
With explosive exchanges of picking emboldened by thick, trembling bass underneath it, and with the glorious harmony of Strings, Failing, Walker and sometimes Royal too, “Know It All,” a hit from Renewal carried into “Ole Slew-Foot” to execute another sophisticated transition at Pier Six.
“Away from the Mire,” from Home, invited a more-than-willing audience on a magical journey, each instrument providing a different step in a stylized progression that ultimately lifted off, spun and funneled back to Billy and his razor-sharp flat picking and his polished inflection, with his mates perfectly applying their sounds in layers as the track culminated around him.
Stream Billy Strings’ 2019 studio album, Home, via Spotify:
In what was a celebrated moment on Strings’ social media platforms, he created an interlude in the swift-moving, fiddle-guided “Long Forgotten Dream” to formally propose to Hargreaves.
Dropping to a knee, much to the crowd’s pleasure, Billy commended the in-demand violinist for his play, and he called Alex out for his “tone, timing, intonations, double stops.”
“I love your fiddle playing,” Billy said with an intense, cinematic delivery. “Will you take us to be your lawfully wedded band? … What do you guys think?!? Should we keep, Alex?!?”
The pavilion space burst as a blushing Alex appeared to signal a sign of approval, and Billy rose to his feet, shouting “THAT SETTLES IT THEN,” in a victoriously playful display of friends conducting official business on stage after a couple wild weeks together on tour.
And it validated that even Strings himself was in agreement about just how good this unit sounded live — a truly unique blend of traditional and contemporary sounds, guided by Strings’ appreciation and understanding of the bluegrass form.
Honoring yet another legend of the genre, and the man credited with spawning the entire realm in the first place, Billy paid tribute to the late Bill Monroe by way of a gorgeous treatment of “A Good Woman’s Love.”
“Well I’m the luckiest dude in the world, ‘cause I’m in a kickass band,” he blurted as the set moved along. They were sincere and telling words from Strings, who has skyrocketed to the top of not just bluegrass but music in general thanks to a nonconformist, wholly original style and attitude. He’s already performed or recorded songs with the likes of Del McCoury, Bela Fleck, Chris Thile and Molly Tuttle, as well as numerous artists outside of bluegrass, like Circles Around the Sun and Luke Combs.
Performing “Turmoil & Tinfoil” from the album of the same name, Strings reinforced at Pier Six that he has nuanced ways of making a performance identifiably his own, fashionably commanding traditional bluegrass sounds into deep, emotive and complex jams with the unmistakable power to rock and groove the listener.
Watch the official music video for Billy Strings’ 2021 single “Heartbeat of America” via his official YouTube channel:
“We’ve had such a good last couple day’s with y’all,” Strings told the audience. “We appreciate you so much. This is just what we do up here. We wouldn’t be shit without yas.”
Bidding farewell with a dapper, high-powered cover of Jimmy Martin’s “Tennessee,” Billy chose a song that sounded like one pulled from his own songbook, and one that allowed for the range of voices in his band to be heard in succession, including Billy’s most animated accents as just about every string was set ablaze and the track swelled, speed up and rang out like a bluegrass work of art.
Pound for pound, pluck for pluck, Strings and his band proved this past weekend in Baltimore that they are indeed a powerful force helping fuel today’s bluegrass wave, with Billy as an unconventional, free-spirited talent leading the charge and entertaining with not just his music, but his personality and his lifestyle of bass fishing, video games, sheer fun — Billy “Mother Fuckin’” Strings, as his most passionate fans call him.
Attendees were still shimmying as they filed out of Pier Six Pavilion Sunday night. But as it turned out, the night wasn’t quite finished. Though most likely didn’t get the memo, there was indeed an afterhours treat: Strings and his pals made their way to The 8X10 in Fed Hill, where Billy sat in with Kitchen Dwellers, a bluegrass outfit of Montana that also happened to be in Baltimore for the night and group that he calls friends.
Meet Me at the Creek
Love & Regret
Heartbeat of American
Rank Stranger (The Stanley Brothers)
Whisper My Name (New Grass Revival)
Dig a Little Deeper in the Well (The Oak Ridge Boys)
Today (John Hartford)
Know It All
Ole Slew-Foot (Johnny Horton)
Life to Go (Stonewall Jackson)
Away from the Mire
Long Forgotten Dream
A Good Woman’s Love (Bill Monroe)
Turmoil & Tinfoil
Tennessee (Jimmy Martin)
Billy Strings returns to our area to perform at The Anthem in DC on Friday, Nov. 18.
Here are selected images of Billy Strings and his band performing at Pier Six Pavilion in Baltimore on July 3, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.