Billy Strings – Sweetwater 420 Fest 2019 (by Emily Butler)
EAR BLISS Reviews by Dan Ferguson
This week’s installment of Ear Bliss is all about strings, from modern day bluegrass and acoustic antics to antique string bands. In the world of bluegrass music, many are touting guitarist extraordinaire Billy Strings as the future of the sound merging the tradition with trailblazing. Judging by the recent International Bluegrass Music Association awards ceremony held in September where Strings garnered both the Guitarist of the Year and New Artist of the Year trophies, not to mention having sold out nearly all shows for his upcoming album release tour, this virtuoso is on fire. His new album Home is in this week’s Ear Bliss spotlight. Keeping with the “strings” theme, joining it is a look at a new compilation from Germany-based archival label Bear Family Records that zeroes in on circa late-1920s string band music originating from a hotbed for the sound, Johnson City, Tennessee. Let’s get to it.
If you’re a guitar player, it’s tough to top a name like Billy Strings. Born William Apostol and raised in Michigan, the now Nashville-based artist continues to turn heads for his fleet-fingered guitar playing abilities on the bluegrass-and-beyond circuit. Just ask anyone who has seen him play over the last few years during which time he has become a phenomenon. Not that Strings has much of a back catalogue of recordings. The recently released 14-track Home represents his full-length debut for Rounder Records and is only his second longplayer in what to date has been a relatively short career. Considering Rounder’s long history with bluegrass from the traditional to the contemporary styles, Strings is an excellent fit. His own “string” music straddles the line of creativity when it comes to bluegrass. He can deliver the goods in traditional style as tracks like opening number “Taking Water,” “Must Be Seven” featuring his former housemate Molly Tuttle on harmony vocals, and “Everything’s the Same” (award-winning Jerry Douglas guests on dobro) from Home all attest. On the flip, Strings is also innovative with numbers like the trippy title track and “Away From the Mire” and the folky “Enough to Leave” and deep-hearted ballad “Love Like Me” all demonstrating his fearless approach to music making. It is a quality that has enamored him to his young and steadily growing fan base. Also a terrific singer and songwriter, he’s just having a great time enjoying the heck out of singing and playing his guitar and that is evident all over the grooves of Home. Recommended. Visit www.rounder.com.
Billy Strings appears at The Sinclair in Boston on November 13 and 14.
Tell It to Me: Revisiting The Johnson City Sessions 1928-29
Bear Family Records
Whereas Victor Records’ Ralph Peer’s historic Bristol Sessions field recordings from 1927 featuring the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family garner the majority of attention as the birth of country music, including Ken Burns’ recent Country Music documentary on PBS, the “Johnson City Sessions” begun just a year later and continuing into 1929 were arguably equally important in the history of recorded country music. Conducted by Frank Buckley Walker who was head of the “hillbilly” recordings arm of Columbia Records, the sessions introduced a host of native Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains talents many of whom would go on to be stars of the day. The recently released various artists compilation Tell It to Me: Revisiting The Johnson City Sessions 1928-29 celebrates the 90th anniversary of those monumental artifacts of recorded sound. Frankly speaking, the music of the Bristol Sessions is staid in comparison to the lively doings that went down in Johnson City. Featuring 26 recordings along with an informative 40-page booklet, given the age of these recordings the sound is outstanding. So are the performances from the likes of the Roane County Ramblers, Proximity String Quartet, Byrd Moore and His Hot Shots, and even the original recording of Clarence Ashley’s classic “The Coo-Coo Bird.” Big kudos to Bear Family for offering up this beautifully packaged step back in time of recorded music. Visit www.bear-family.com.
The music of Jimmi Hendrix will fill seaside watering hole The Ocean Mist in Matunuck (895A Matunuck Beach Road) on Friday night when the club presents Vernon Reid of Living Colour band fame who brings his Band of Gypsies Revisited Band to explore the soul, funk & roll of the classic Jimi Hendrix album “Band of Gypsys Live at The Fillmore East.”
Chan’s Restaurant in Woonsocket (267 Main Street) offers up its customary one-two punch of blues this weekend with club (& Ocean State) mainstay Neal & the Vipers doing the honors on Friday evening and the dynamic duo of Willie J. Laws and Roberto Morbioli poised to deliver the goods on Saturday night. Show time each evening is 8 pm.
The Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland (549 Broad Street) offers shows on both Friday and Saturday evenings this weekend. Neil Young tribute band Young Rust brings the rock to the ‘stone on Friday night at 8 pm. Guitarist Robin Bullock has been hailed as a “Celtic guitar god” by Baltimore City Paper and “one of the best folk instrumentalists in the business” by Sing Out! Magazine. Those are some heady credentials which makes his 8 pm appearance on Saturday evening at the BRT must-see stuff. Guitar picking and singing will be in the air in Peace Dale when Pepino D’Agostino with Victor Main take the stage at the Pump House Music Works (1764 Kingstown Road) on Saturday evening for a 7:30 show.
It’s also a busy weekend at the Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich (59 Main Street). On Saturday night, the Odeum welcomes acclaimed pianist and composer Keiko Matsui whose past credentials include working alongside the likes of Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and Hugh Masekela. Show time is 8 pm. The following evening, Sunday, the Odeum presents celebrated pianist George Winston who is on the road promoting his latest solo piano album called “Restless Wind.” Doors are at 6 and music begins at 7 pm.
Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame band Neutral Nation has been playing punk rock in these parts since the early 1980s. The band celebrates 37-and-a-half years in the business on Friday night with a show at The Met Café in Pawtucket (1005 Main Street). Doors are at 8 and music starts at 8:30 with Benny Sizzler, Eric and The Nothing, and KiSSiNG KONTEST in the opening slots.
Looking into next week, the all-female Australian psych-metal band Stonefield whose influences include Deep Purple and Black Sabbath brings its sludgy sounds to the Fete Music Hall in Providence (103 Dike Street) on Wednesday night. The Benji’s and Mad Passenger are also on the bill with doors at 7 pm. The following evening, multi-instrumentalist Keller Williams’ solo tour makes a stop at The Met Café. Renowned for his distinct style of acoustic dance music, Williams’ game plan is looping guitar riffs, rhythms and vocals to create a dynamic and layered set of bluegrass and improvisation. Doors are at 8 pm.
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3.)