Ionia County’s favorite bluegrass son pumped up thousands of fans in Kalamazoo on Thursday, with another home-state show in Saginaw tonight. Review, photos, set list.
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That Billy Strings has weaved covers of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd amid his own acoustic gems – plus classics by Bill Monroe and Doc Watson – on his current U.S. tour says a lot about this New Millennium pioneer of the bluegrass scene.
While Billy “Strings” Apostol certainly cut his teeth on bluegrass in Ionia County as a young lad under the tutelage of his stepfather Terry Barber, he also dyed his hair black as a teen to crank out ear-splitting heavy metal.
“When we performed, it was the furthest thing from a bluegrass traditional performance,” Apostol told Local Spins in an interview a few years ago.
“We were jumping around the stage, head-banging, sweating, ripping our shirts off, kicking people in the audience, spitting on each other, stage-diving, breaking instruments, just everything. Just crazy.”
So when Billy Strings and his band – with new fiddler Alex Hargreaves – unleashed their much-anticipated homecoming show for more than 6,000 Michigan fans at a sold-out Kalamazoo’s Wings Event Center on Thursday night, they did it with equal amounts of bluegrass virtuosity and rock ’n’ roll bravado.
After boasting wildly varying set lists from night to night during the fall tour, Billy & Co. on Thursday kicked things off in more traditional bluegrass fashion with “Red Daisy” and “Hellbender” from 2021’s “Renewal,” followed by a lengthy take on New Grass Revival’s “This Heart of Mine.”
He clearly reveled in the home-state atmosphere, telling fans he was relishing that “cool Michigan air” after crisscrossing the country.
“I feel like I can finally breathe again,” he quipped, before showing off his signature, eye-popping picking on song after song while the pumped-up faithful bopped up and down like Energizer-powered jumping beans.
It wasn’t long before Billy and his uber-talented crew delved into radiantly illuminated psychedelia and rock-bluegrass fusion with “Heartbeat of America” that boasts the appropriate lines: “Now I’m seeing music that nobody else can see, with all the colors like a symphony surrounding me.”
It seems Billy has always seen music that nobody else can see, which has elevated him to the pinnacle of the bluegrass and jam-band scene – and earned him legions of disciples who follow him across the land.
“You look very beautiful,” Billy told them early on, with his long locks blowing back from the breeze of a stage fan. “Your faces all smell like beautiful flowers. I can smell them from here. I love you. I love you so much.”
A NIGHT HEAVY ON BILLY STRINGS ORIGINALS AND SOME BLUEGRASS CLASSICS
Billy’s devotees obviously love his expansive repertoire, perhaps perfectly represented by the light-festooned, effects-laden jamming of “Away from the Mire,” which had fans swaying, fist-pumping and rocking gleefully as Billy scrambled from one end of the stage to the other while unleashing that lightning-quick, bluegrass-meets-spacey-rock splendor.
Hargreaves, banjoist Billy Failing, mandolinist Jarrod Walker and bassist Royal Masat kept it blissfully tight and upbeat all evening, especially on the rock-heavy “Turmoil & Tinfoil” and on older Michigan favorites such as “Dust in a Baggie,” which Billy first made famous while playing with Traverse City mandolinist Don Julin.
The opening night in Michigan was heavy on Billy Strings originals from his last three albums – plus a new song, “My Alice,” co-written with Michigan singer-songwriter Aaron Allen (and an a cappella cover of Doc Watson’s “Am I Born to Die” dedicated to his Aunt Roxanne) – rather than covers of any iconic rock tunes.
The band even gave a musical shout-out to Kalamazoo’s bluegrass powerhouse Greensky Bluegrass — another big early influence on Billy — by playing that band’s “Wings for Wheels” early in the second set.
And while the milieu drifted frequently toward arena-rock-like jamming and lighting, with a video backdrop and screens flanking the stage, the accoutrements were just that: Billy truly seemed to be right at home through it all, just playing guitar with his friends — his eyes shut tight during blazing solos.
In a bow to tradition and in tribute to his father, Billy Strings also sticks mostly to bluegrass convention on his upcoming new studio album, “Me/And/Dad,” which was recorded with Barber and officially gets released on Nov. 18 – the day before the final, sold-out stop on his U.S. tour in Washington D.C.
After that, he and his band head overseas to Europe for shows in late November – and many of those concerts already are sold out, too.
For those who reveled in “Billy Strings: The Early Years,” when he’d have fans standing on tables at cozy venues such as Rockford Brewing or SpeakEZ Lounge just to see him light it up, it’s utterly gratifying to see him working so comfortably in arenas filled with fans who also appreciate that Michigan-bred talent.
“Everyone is so happy for Billy Strings,” fan Kelly Beez wrote on Facebook on Thursday night. “It’s contagious.”
Billy Strings plays Dow Event Center in Saginaw at 8 p.m. Friday (Nov. 4). Some tickets — $39.50-$49.50 — are still available online here.
PHOTO GALLERY: Billy Strings at Wings Event Center
Photos by Derek Ketchum
PHOTO GALLERY: The Fans
Photos by Derek Ketchum and Anna Sink