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What's in a name? Strings lives up to it

Sinclair Cambridge, Cambridge, Mass., November 14, 2019

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Billy Strings may not be his real name, but the bluegrass performer more than lives up to his adopted moniker.

Bluegrass may not be the first style of music when one thinks of William Apostol's (yup, that's Billy's real name) home state of Michigan, but with more miles on the bus and shows like this outstanding, lengthy, lyrical night of music, Strings may put bluegrass on the map in a state more known for music giants like Bob Seger and Motown.

Strings, who sold out most of his fall tour well in advance, offered a combination of his own material and well-chosen covers (Flatt & Scrugg's "Doin' My Time," Bill Monroe's "I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome" and "I Haven't Seen Mary in Years" and going for more recent music including the Dead's "China Doll" and the String Cheese Incident's "Black Clouds," before closing with a solo acoustic take as the encore of The Doc Watson Family's "And Am I Born to Die?" performed drop dead quiet).

Strings' main instrument is the acoustic guitar, and it was increasingly obvious during the course of the most generous 150-minute show spread over two sets as to why.

Sometimes Strings' tunings made you wonder if that really wasn't an electric guitar masquerading as an acoustic. Of course, Childs really was playing acoustic, but he put a lot of muscle into his playing as well.

And then there were the extended jams Sometimes jam bands fall into these long, meandering musical spaces where ultimately the effort doesn't prove particularly enjoyable when the band acts as if longer equals better.

Strings wasn't necessarily short in his songs -late in the second set, "Meet Me at the Creek" was probably about 20 minutes. Yes, some of the selections were long, but these were not songs suffering from noodlings and long stretches of not very much to show for it. Instead, Strings and his backing trio (Billy Failing - banjo, Royal Masat - upright bass and Jarrod Walker - mandolin) glided through the material, often at a fast clip and would come to repeat lines.

While Strings' playing was stellar, this was far from the effort of a one-man band as Masat occupied the bottom with Failing and Walker also spurring the material along where they often had ample space to display their skills.

There also was an intensity in Strings' style. Strings was not enjoyable to watch not only for his playing, but for his numerous facial gestures throughout the night. Let's put it this way, this guy was feeling the music in spades.

Towards the end of the night, Strings switched to electric for a more muscular close to evening starting with a cover of the late blues man Son Seal's "Funky Bitch" before turning in his take on The Jimi Hendrix Experience's "Fire."

Strings also was helped during the final thrust by opening act duo Stash Wyslouch on acoustic guitar and Sean Trischka on drums plus flautist and Anh Phung (Strings jokingly referred to her as a bluegrass flautist) with Phung especially welcome with her playing. Call it reinventing the bluegrass wheel.

Strings left no doubt that no matter what name he uses, he's the real deal.

Wyslouch and Trischka opened under the name Mattie & Debbie with a variety of styles. While making a positive impression over the long haul, it also felt like they were trying just a bit too hard to be different just because.