My First Billy Strings First Show : 1st Bank Center In Broomfield, CO

Sometimes you need to head west in the winter to find some heat, and at 1st Bank Center on Saturday, February 4, that’s just what was found. Amid bitter cold back east, I flew out to Denver for a short weekend and experienced my first Billy Strings show.

This is not to say I’ve never seen Billy Strings perform – I first saw him at WinterWonderGrass in Stratton, VT in December 2018, after years of hearing the buzz about this Michigan bluegrass musician. It took until last summer to catch him a second time, during Outlaw Music Fest when it came to Saratoga Performing Arts Center. But I had never seen him in a regular show setting, and festival sets always give you a different experience than seeing the band for an evening with. Thus, this would be my first Billy Strings show, on the last night of his sold out three-night run in Broomfield, CO, and what a show it was.

Cutting to the chase here, Billy Strings, featuring Mr. Strings (guitar), Billy Failing (banjo), Royal Masat (bass), Jarrod Walker (mandolin), and Alex Hargreaves (fiddle), puts on one hell of a show. There wasn’t a dull moment, an unengaged fan or any feeling I was arriving to the show as an outsider – the crowd was welcoming, one that assured me afterwards that I got a heater at my first Billy show.

With a half an hour before show time (given the 815pm start time the previous two nights), our crew found ourselves on the floor about a third of the way from the front, stage right. With 15 minutes, 10 minutes and 5 minutes before showtime, a brief announcement came on the screens with the voice of god saying “X minutes until Fuzzy Rainbows” – a unique way to get the crowd prepared for the show at the same time the band is getting ready and heading to the stage. With all the shows I’d listened to of Billy Strings’, this was a brand new concept and one of those welcome surprises that did not disappoint.

Kicking off with two substance-tinged tunes, the ever popular “Dust in a Baggie” and “Heartbeat of America,” eyes were drawn to the video screens on either side of the stage. These made Billy and the band seem larger than life (by design), with the band-wide shot above the stage giving a horizontal frame to the band. For those way back in the audience, this was helpful as the five musicians side by side appeared so tiny after looking at the video screens of Giant Billy looking down on the crowd.

The hour long first set had an array of covers, with traditional tunes from Roy Acuff and Larry Sparks complemented by covers from The Moody Blues and John Hartford. Billy Strings’ blending of his own originals and covers that go back through the history of bluegrass, as well as non-bluegrass tunes is a great part of the appeal that makes the music so accessible to so many.

Alongside the video screens were the lights, which were another thing that could not translate to the audio-only experience, let alone festival sets. The lights were on par with the 20th Century Fox intro spotlights, continually shining all around, rotating and occassionally connecting with the disco ball way up in the rafters off stage left. This unexpected element to a bluegrass show gave a never-ending intertwining of lights, something you’d only see at a Greensky Bluegrass show.

After a not too long setbreak, set 2 came out swinging with an Oak Ridge Boys tune, a mellow and delightful “Watch It Fall” and the traditional “Cumberland Reel.” From there, the set picked up speed and never let up, dropping in with the dark as hell “Psycho” that segued smooth as silk into J.J. Cale’s “Ride Me High.” The Bad Livers’ tune “Pretty Daughter” – covered often by Yonder Mountain String Band – jumped up late in the set, with Billy moving from side to side on the stage, hamming it up a bit and watching his bandmates take solos. The closing “Turmoil & Tinfoil” rounded things out with a punch, with an all too brief encore of “Tennessee,” noted as the band’s destination for some recording, and not a sit-in with Phil Lesh and Friends the next day in Denver.

And with that, I checked my first Billy Strings show off the list, with assurance from the show and crowd that this would not be the last.

Billy Strings – 1st Bank Center, Broomfield, CO – Saturday, February 4, 2023

Set 1: Dust In A Baggie, Heartbeat of America, Along The Road (Dan Fogelberg), Streamlined Cannonball (Roy Acuff), The Fire On My Tounge > Know It All, John Deere Tractor (Larry Sparks), The Preacher & The Bear (Arthur Francis Collins), Wargasm, Nights In White Satin (The Moody Blues), This Old World, Bronzeback, All Fall Down (John Hartford), These Old Blues (Traditional)

Set 2: Dig A Little Deeper In The Well (The Oak Ridge Boys), Ice Bridges, Watch It Fall, Slow Train, Cumberland Reel (traditional), Psycho (Eddie Noack) > Ride Me High (J.J. Cale) The Train That Carried My Girl From Town (Doc Watson) > Black Mountain Rag, Love Like Me, Whisper Your Name (New Grass Revival), Pretty Daughter (Bad Livers), Nothing’s Working, Turmoil & TInfoil

Encore: Tennessee (Jimmy Martin)

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