Reviewed by Harry Kaplan
This is the first time I have been to the new Union Craft digs and let me say, I am impressed. The venue itself is very industrial and has a nostalgic feel to it. All that metal and austerity is tempered by the positive energy inside. Even with all the cold steel and concrete, the venue is warm and inviting. The staff couldn’t be more accommodating and the patrons all seemed to be quite friendly.
The concessions are of the highest quality and for a very reasonable price. The beer prices were great! Five to six dollars per pint. For a live music venue, that’s astounding. Also, they have a self serve water station with normal sized cups! And food. We didn’t eat because the line was quite long. But, the food looked fantastic. People around us were eating hand made fire roasted pizzas that looked delicious. What I am trying to say is Union Craft thought of the little things that make people feel comfortable and they are still making a profit (I hope). A win win.
Before I get to the music, I want to talk about the lighting and sound. Top notch equipment on both fronts. I don’t know what brand they were, but I know they were good. The lights were LED and crystal clear. The sound was loud, but without any distortion. The sound was like drinking water out of a mountain spring. That’s pretty clean!
Billy Strings may be the front man of this quartet, but without the other three outstanding members, there is no Billy Strings Band. Of course, you have Billy Strings on acoustic guitar and vocals. Then, you have Billy Failing on banjo. Billy is not failing on banjo, he is excelling. Billy also does backing vocal duties. On bass and backing vocals, there is Royal Masat. He is the rhythm section, playing both bass and drums. In baseball, Royal would be compared to the catcher, in football: the center. He is the backbone. Last but certainly not least, Jarrod Walker on mandolin and backing vocals. The mandolin acts as the cherry on the sundae, a necessary element. And let me add that the backing vocals are stellar. These guys came to play, and play, they did. Playing for a combined two and a half hours. No opening band, just Mr. Strings and the boys searching for the sound. This is called acoustic music, but technology plays a very important part in both the sound and lighting. The psychedelic colored oils on the overhead projector have been replaced with state of the art lighting that actually creates a light show on the walls or makeshift movie screen. Billy is very technologically savvy and uses different pedals and effects to enhance the sound. It is apparent that in addition to entertaining, all of these guys are extremely experimental.
With the sound, lights, and psychedelic vibe, this was a cross between acid test era Grateful Dead and Sid Barrett era Pink Floyd. This ain’t yer daddy’s bluegrass. No, it’s better. The mechanics and talent are there and so is that sense of adventure and the possibility of achieving lift off. No doubt, lift off was achieved on December 14, 2018 and Captain Billy was at the helm of this cosmic musical space ship.
Paying homage to their forefathers, it was only fitting that Billy play some Dead. The perfect amount. Just a Deal in the first set and an absolute tear inducing version of China Doll in the second. The harmonies were other worldly. They took a great song and made it legendary. I sure hope this one stays in the playbook for a while. This is a show with legs, meaning this is one group to be seen over and over. Never the same show twice. Maybe the songs are the same but the improvisation makes each song version unique.
This is definitely a band made for the road. Their tour schedule already extends pretty deep into 2019. My advice is to see Billy Strings while he is still playing normal sized arenas. Those days are numbered. If you like smaller and more intimate venues, see Billy Strings soon before he really blows up.
The Old Home Place (The Dillards cover)
Unwanted Love (David Grisman cover)
Turmoil & Tinfoil
Red Rocking Chair ([traditional] cover)
Southern Flavor (Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys cover)
All of Tomorrow
Deal (Jerry Garcia cover)
Love Comes Rolling Down
And Your Bird Can Sing (The Beatles cover)
Little Maggie (Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys cover)
Living Like an Animal
On the Line
Tennessee Stud (Jimmie Driftwood cover)
June Apple ([traditional] cover)
China Doll (Grateful Dead cover)
I Know Your Married (But I Still Love You) (Buck Owens and His Buckaroos cover)
Dust in a Baggie
Set list courtesy of Setlist.fm. Link