Billy Strings was definitely feeling “It” when he took the St.Augustine Amphitheatre stage Thursday for the first of three sold-out shows in sunny Florida. By “It” we of course mean the spirit of joy in playing music and maybe just a smidge of the spirit of the day, April 20th, AKA 420, the unofficial official marijuana holiday.
With pointed song selections including a couple of classic John Hartford odes to the devil’s lettuce like the Yonder Mountain String Band-favorite cover “2 Hits & The Joint Turned Brown” (featuring a faithful recreation of Jeff Austin‘s intro rap) and “Holdin’”, to the Willie Nelson classic “Roll Me Up”, and New Riders of the Purple Sage’s “Panama Red”, Strings showed every facet of the band in the brightest, if not a touch hazy, of lights.
Wearing a particularly crooked smile and sunglasses against the earlier-than-usual sunny set start time, Billy Strings and his men Billy Failing (banjo), Royal Masat (bass), Jarrod Walker (mandolin), and Alex Hargreaves (fiddle) took the stage. As is often the case with bluegrass bands on grand stages like the massive one in St. Augustine’s spacious amphitheater, they looked tiny and somehow a bit more isolated than most other venues but it wasn’t long before the size of their sound readily matched the space. Truth be told, the amazing amount of notes-per-second Strings can emit is more than enough to easily fill a stage ten times the size.
A certain theme revealed itself over the course of the setlist, as a loose “Your Love Is Like a Flower” got things started. Loose is a relative term when it comes to a bluegrass band as drilled and precise as Billy Strings brings to the table, mind you. Jarrod Walker, for example, simply astounds with his nimble ability to match almost any pace laid down by his fiery fretboard companion. Walker showed repeatedly throughout the night, whether adding fills as he did on “Away From The Mire” or helping set up the pocket traditional style for “New Country Blues”, that in any other setting he would easily be the most dexterous player on the stage.
Billy Strings – “Your Love Is Like a Flower” (Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, The Foggy Mountian Boys), “Away From The Mire”, “New Country Blues” (Drew Emmitt, Bill Nershi) [Pro-Shot] – 4/20/23
Strings took a moment to address the crowd before, laughing to himself, he admitted to everyone he “forgot” what he was about to do or say. Being a student of the scene he did what you’re supposed to when you get confused and just let the music play and let that speak for him. After a sweet one-two of a “This Old World” into a boot-scootin’ “Black Mountain Rag”, Billy led the band in the aforementioned pitch-perfect Yonder-esque “2 Hits and The Joint Turned Brown” that showed more clearly than ever the similarities in stage presence and speed that Billy and the late Austin share.
The band pulled a fast one in more ways than one with a slow, grinding intro to its second Hartford tune of the night, “Granny Wontcha Smoke Some Marijuana” before cranking the speed up for the fastest tempo of the evening on the second half of the track. As darkness fell the jams matched the atmosphere, with a dark and deliciously psychedelic “Taking Water” flowing perfectly into “Runnin The Route” and “End Of The Rainbow” in a three-song set ending run that saw the band embrace and nail every nuance, tempo, and flourish with an ease that seemed to give each member a perfect opportunity to showcase their skill set.
Related: Billy Strings Gets Stuck Inside Of Mobile With A Bob Dylan Debut [Videos/Audio]
After a shorter-than-usual set break, the band came speeding out of the gate for set two. One thing that bears mentioning is just how generous a band leader Billy Strings can be. He has shown absolute faith in his bandmates to get the job done, and when they found their way to “Sally Goodin”, the third song of the second set, he introduced it as a fiddle-banjo tune and graciously stepped back to let Billy Failing and Alex Hargreaves take center stage. The stage remained communal, as Royal Masat came thump-thumping along like some monster-sized creature from an old-style monster movie.
As if wanting to remind the crowd they have more than one setting, following a couple of barn burners like “Rock Salt & Nails” and “Heartbeat of America”, the quintet showcased a truly emotional, slowed down, and sorrowful crawling version of “In The Morning Light”, which was practically dripping with sentiment. Needing to clear the air after such a display the band reached another high point of the evening, a fun Willie Nelson cover of “Roll Me Up” before a reverb and echo-laden “Show Me The Door” that saw some sweet full band harmonizing.
A quick tip of the hat to the day saw good old “Panama Red” slip into town before fuzzily dissolving to the final songs of the second set, the first of which was a heartstring-tugging take on “Pyramid Country”. Sadly, this impressive display of sheer skill gave way to the last song of the second set, a lightning-in-a-bottle version of “Hide & Seek”.
Quickly returning for a much-demanded encore, Strings had a final act of musical sharing up his sleeve. Billy stepped back, stretched out, and let Walker take guitar and sing the lead on the last Hartford track of the night, “Holdin’”, before strapping his own six-string strung-up box back on for a filling-rattling “Roll On Buddy, Roll On”. After such a wild and wooly performance all that was left was for the band to take a well-earned bow and for Billy to toss a few handfuls of souvenir guitar picks to an exhausted but still eager-for-more audience.
If this first night of the weekend run is any indication, it’s gonna be another fine weekend in the warm Florida sun for Billy and company. He may not be faulted for possibly being a little less than crisp tomorrow morning but by showtime we’re sure he’ll be ready to tear up and down the fretboard at his usual, death-defying pace.
Billy Strings – “Taking Water” > “Running The Route” > “End Of The Rainbow” (Frank Wakefield) – 4/20/23
[Video: Doug Heck]
Billy Strings – “Roll Me Up” (Willie Nelson) – 4/20/23
[Video: Todd Norris]
Billy Strings – “Pryamind Country” > “Hide & Seek” – 4/20/23
[Video: Doug Heck]
Billy Strings – “Holdin’” (John Hartford) – 4/20/23
[Video: Todd Norris]
Setlist: Billy Strings | St. Augustine Amphitheatre | St. Augustine, FL | 4/20/23
Set One: Your Love Is Like a Flower (Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, The Foggy Mountain Boys) , Away From The Mire, New Country Blues (Drew Emmitt, Bill Nerhsi), This Old World > Black Mountain Rag (Leslie Keith), Two Hits and The Joint Turned Brown (John Hartford) , Know It All, Love & Regret, Granny Wontcha Smoke Some Marijuana (John Hartford) , Taking Water > Running The Route > End Of The Rainbow (Frank Wakefield)
Set Two: Red Daisy, While I’m Waiting Here, Sally Goodin (Traditional), Rock Salt & Nails (Utah Phillips), Heartbeat Of America, In The Morning Light, Roll Me Up (Willie Nelson) , Show Me The Door, So Many Miles, Panama Red (New Riders Of The Purple Sage) > Pyramid Country  > Hide & Seek
Encore: Holdin’ (John Hartford)  , Roll On Buddy, Roll On (Traditional) FTP
 “Bathtub Gin” (Phish) tease
 Billy Strings on lead vocals without guitar, Jarrod Walker on guitar, Billy Failing back-up vocals without banjo