“Billy Strings Month” continues with a look back at the young, up-and-coming guitarist eight years ago as he prepared to play the cozy SpeakEZ Lounge. Plus, a full performance video from the same year.
Tonight, the Local Spins Wednesdays series at SpeakEZ Lounge will tantalize jazz fans when the uber-talented Evidence Jazz takes the stage around 7:30 p.m., performing a host of originals — including songs from the album, “The Message,” that earned high praise from JazzTimes. (Details here.)
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But exactly eight years ago this week, that very same Local Spins series electrified fans with an uber-talented musician who’d go on to super-stardom in a different genre, selling out venues across the country, releasing No. 1 albums and earning awards at every turn.
And as an 11th-hour addition to 2015’s weekly series in SpeakEZ’s cozy confines, it was a doozy.
Ionia County bluegrass guitarist William Apostol, aka Billy Strings — who had started to make a big splash across the region at the time with Traverse City mandolinist Don Julin — joined West Michigan Dobroist Mark Lavengood that night for a dazzling and fun opening set (ahead of Hank Mowery & The Hawktones) that those on hand at the 140-capacity club wouldn’t soon forget.
Fast forward eight years, and this time around, Billy Strings and Mark Lavengood are set to perform for a capacity crowd at the 12,000-seat Van Andel Arena on Halloween night with an all-star cast of nationally acclaimed players. My, how fast things can change.
The Oct. 31 tour stop by Billy Strings and his band will include appearances by buzz-generating bluegrass artists such as Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Bill Nershi, John Mailander, Chris Pandolfi and Duane Trucks in what’s billed as the “Van Andel Scramble.”
Even Billy Strings, then 23, couldn’t have imagined such a spectacle back in 2015, though the seeds for that success were certainly being sown.
In a Local Spins interview at the time, the guitar phenom revealed that he was writing more and concentrating on solo material outside of the “Billy Strings & Don Julin” format. Less than two months later, he’d announce that he’d be parting ways with Julin and moving to Nashville the following year.
Let’s revisit that 2015 interview along with photo galleries from that week’s SpeakEZ show, along with a Local Spins Live at River City Studios session that took place earlier in the year.
As fall 2015 sets in, Billy Strings is starting to branch out.
The bluegrass guitar phenom from Traverse City who’s created a stir nationally and crisscrossed the country the past year with mandolinist Don Julin is hammering away on solo material and performing with a host of other musical pals these days.
“I’ve got a batch of songs that I’m going to make a record out of. I’ve been focusing a lot more on original material,” he told Local Spins, noting that the Billy Strings & Don Julin duo will be “pulling back” from performing 200-plus gigs a year in the near future.
“I’m going to focus more on my solo stuff,” he insisted, just before an 11th-hour booking at SpeakEZ Lounge that came after The Eddy music festival off Monroe Avenue NW (an ArtPrize-related 10-day event hosted by Traverse City’s Porterhouse Presents) experienced dismally low turnouts for scheduled shows that week.
For Apostol, playing shows in Grand Rapids is akin to coming home. He grew up in Ionia County and expects plenty of friends and relatives to swing by to cheer him on and, perhaps, even sit in with him.
“It’s going to be kind of like a big jam session on the stage. I’ll be the El Capitano,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to playing in Grand Rapids. Whenever I play down there I get to see all these hometown friends. It’s like a reunion.”
(After the SpeakEZ show, Billy Strings rejoined Don Julin for weekend concerts at Park Theatre in Holland and Harvest @ The Commons in Traverse City, where he and Julin were based at the time.)
The duo, often accompanied by Traverse City standup bassist Kevin Gills, quickly have become one of the country’s most sought-after bluegrass outfits, releasing two highly praised albums and touring with the likes of the legendary Del McCoury and David Grisman, aka Del & Dawg.
Later in 2015, they would make tour stops in places as far-flung as New York, California and Minnesota. That came after the group played a host of high-profile, bluegrass-driven festivals earlier in the year, including Grey Fox, Wintergrass, DelFest, Rockygrass, Romp and Albino Skunk Music Festival in South Carolina.
“All those big festivals we get to hang out with our heroes and play music with them. It’s just amazing,” Apostol said. “We’re so lucky to be inside that community.”
Read more about Billy Strings & Don Julin in this special Local Spins Artist Spotlight, with a full video of their performance at River City Studios in early 2015 below.
PHOTO GALLERY: Billy Strings and Mark Lavengood at SpeakEZ Lounge (October 2015)
Photos by Anna Sink
(Plus photos from other concerts across West Michigan that weekend)
VIDEO: Billy Strings & Don Julin, Local Spins Live at River City Studios