The wrestling-themed Halloween homecoming spectacle for the Michigan-bred bluegrass guitarist was a star-studded, five-hour, epic ‘rumblemania’ event. Review, photos, set list.
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Before Tuesday’s elaborate, much-ballyhooed homecoming show at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena, Billy Strings warned that fans should “expect complete destruction.”
“We’re going to tear a crater in Van Andel Arena and the tectonic plates are going to shift,” he told Local Spins. “It’s going to be amazing.”
“Amazing” and “epic” don’t begin to describe what transpired at the arena on Tuesday night.
Craters and earthquakes aside, the Michigan bluegrass superstar’s wrestling-themed Halloween extravaganza certainly delivered a mind-blowing display of instrumental prowess and an unforgettable evening of goofy skits, stellar guests and top-shelf jamming that leaned heavily into rock ‘n’ roll as well as bluegrass.
Billy Strings’ first Van Andel Arena concert – with an enthusiastic and cleverly costumed near-sellout crowd packing the 12,000-capacity venue — was one for the record books, a spectacle of song that’s never been done before and will never be replicated.
Unfolding just 41 miles west of Muir where he grew up, the lengthy two-set evening proved that Billy is redefining not only bluegrass music but guitar-playing itself.
Alternating between acoustic and electric guitars, Billy (dressed up as Hulk Hogan) uncorked much-requested originals such as “Away from the Mire,” “Turmoil & Tinfoil” and “Dealing Despair,” while saving some of the night’s biggest surprises for rafter-rattling, jaw-dropping covers of The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Tuff Enuff,” Metallica’s “Sandman,” Rick Derringer’s “Real American,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Queen’s “We Are the Champions” (which closed out the show).
He and his world-class band (bassist Royal Masat, banjoist Billy Failing, mandolinist Jarrod Walker, fiddler Alex Hargreaves and special guest, drummer Duane Trucks) welcomed a succession of distinguished guests to the stage, all garbed as various wrestling personalities: guitarist Molly Tuttle, Dobroist Mark Lavengood, fiddler John Mailander, mandolinist Sierra Hull, banjoist Chris Pandolfi (of The Infamous Stringdusters) and Bill Nershi (of The String Cheese Incident).
Billed as “The Van Andel Scramble,” the show came complete with bombastic announcers, a wrestling ring, a faux feud with Billy’s guitar tech and theatrical skirmishes between band members, all depicted on three mammoth video screens that served as a backdrop to the artfully lighted musical mayhem.
Fans took it to heart, too, including Adam Sweeney of Alpena, who was attending his fifth Billy Strings concert and embracing the wrestling theme. “I’m ready to rumble,” he declared. “It can’t get any better than this.”
A ‘LEGENDARY’ FIVE-HOUR NIGHT FILLED WITH VIRTUOSIC TALENT
One of the “rumblemania” announcers may have nailed it on the head during his introduction: “Tonight’s going to be legendary!”
Indeed, because as over-the-top cheesy as the rassling spoofs were, there was nothing cheesy about the musicianship and eye-popping jamming that Billy and his crew unfurled throughout the evening. The addition of a drummer, in particular, provided muscular bluster and low-end oomph to the rollicking display.
“Thank you for having us in your beautiful city,” Billy said early on. “I’m so glad to be here.”
So were his comrades, who obviously relished the banjo and fiddle duels as well as the opportunities for unleashing unusual covers, including an absolutely brilliant rendition of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” with Hull and Billy harmonizing and trading vocal lines.
Another special moment: Billy introduced his old pal, Mark “Huggy Bear” Lavengood (dressed as Ric Flair) to represent Grand Rapids and perform “Ol’ Slewfoot” along with an instrumental number, “Sliding Rock,” that Billy and Lavengood recorded many years ago. The guitarist even reflected on memories of the pair busking for change “on the steps” of Van Andel Arena a decade ago.
At the center of all the hoopla, as always, was the prodigious guitar mastery of a 31-year-old musician who oscillates seamlessly between acoustic bluegrass wizardry and electric heavy metal shredding. And it’s not just about lightning speed. On “Leaders,” Billy squeezed out tasty Peter Frampton-like tones before joining Hull for one of her gems, “Poison.”
If it wasn’t the year’s best concert at Van Andel, many could make an airtight case that it was the most instrumentally impressive, the most diverse musically and, well, the longest by a longshot: The entire 31-song spectacle – including intros, silly wrestling skits and a brief intermission – lasted more than five hours with the musicians performing on stage for well over four hours.
(A security guard informed me that the concert was supposed to end well before midnight; it actually ran until about 12:30 a.m.)
It’s hard to imagine another assemblage of virtuosic talent quite like this on a single stage in one night, not to mention experiencing every Halloween trick and treat that Billy Strings could muster.
Perhaps it proves that bluegrass – in the right hands and in the psychedelic-leaning, rock-fueled form that it took on Tuesday – can indeed be an arena- and stadium-worthy genre.
Declaring that Halloween is his favorite holiday, Billy Strings insisted in a Local Spins interview that he revels in the merrymaking and masqueraderie of the October celebration.
“It’s gotta stay fun,” he said of his approach to music and performing. “If you’re not doing that, you’re doing it wrong.”
Suffice to say, Billy and his fun-loving masked mates did absolutely nothing wrong on Tuesday, putting a musical wrestling hold on fans that should maintain its grip on them until Halloween 2024.
– Holly Holtzclaw and Dutcher Snedeker contributed to this report
Read More About Billy Strings: The Local Spins Interview
PHOTO GALLERY: Billy Strings at Van Andel Arena
Photos by Derek Ketchum
Outside Van Andel Arena, At Billyween Vendors’ Market
Photos by Anna Sink, Chelsea Whitaker, John Sinkevics and Derek Ketchum
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