Concert Review: Billy Strings Blesses Roadrunner, Memorably

By Scott McLennan

Where Roadrunner goes from here remains to be seen, but Billy Strings did his part to open the room with a bang of a blessing.

Billy Strings and band at Roadrunner: Strings on guitar, Jarrod Walker on mandolin, Royal Masat on bass, and Billy Failing on banjo.

Let’s talk about music venues. Billy Strings sure was happy to do that when he played the inaugural show Tuesday night at Roadrunner in Boston, a 3,500-seat general admission gem now open in the Brighton neighborhood.

Strings peppered his expansive 25-song, two-set show with gleeful commentary about being the first artist to play the venue opened by Bowery Presents. And credit Bowery, which has presented Strings at various steppingstone venues in Boston from the very start of his career, for choosing an artist who both appreciates the storied culture and traditions of live music and appeals to a wide, diverse, and growing audience.

Strings spoke with reverence about having had the good fortune thus far to play in such celebrated venues as the Ryman in Nashville, Red Rocks outside of Denver, Tipitina’s in New Orleans, and the Cap in Port Chester, NY — all places that inspired legendary musical performances by artists whose work endures long after they have left us.

And then Strings laid this benediction on Roadrunner: “I’m looking forward to all of the magical times to come in this space right here.”

And, before jumping into noting the specific magic Strings and his band sprung on Tuesday, it’s worth noting the benefits of having Roadrunner in the mix of places to see shows in Boston. Though the seating capacity is larger than that of the House of Blues, Orpheum Theater, and Big Night Out — it is comparable to that of the Boch Center Wang Theater, where Strings played to a sold-out house in November — Roadrunner has a leg up on the competition with superb sight lines and sound. The general admission layout and open design accommodates the free flow of patrons, and that is a plus for shows that beg for movement as well as listening.

Roadrunner was a pleasant surprise, but Strings and crew were dependably fantastic. Formatted as a traditional bluegrass band with Strings on guitar, Jarrod Walker on mandolin, Royal Masat on bass, and Billy Failing on banjo, the group deftly moved from sturdy tradition to psychedelic exploration and several points in between.

Strings opened with “Big Ball in Boston,” a quick-picking traditional number that he used as an encore for his November concert in the city. Another local reference popped up later with his live debut of the traditional folk song “Two Soldiers” and its opening line about a “blue-eyed Boston boy.”

Strings also tapped into the “Roadrunner” vibe, pairing his original songs “Running” and “Running the Route” early in the first set.

But the real highlight in the first set was a sprawling example of barely controlled musical mania that was generated by a run of original songs that began with the exploratory instrumental “Pyramid Country,” flowed into the fierce “Fire on My Tongue,” and settled into the contemplative “Must Be Seven.” The sequence featured a little bit of everything — blazing solos, explosive ensemble jams, effects-laden picking, and the sturdiness of Strings’s original compositions.

Covers of the Johnny Horton hit “Ole Slew-Foot,” Bad Livers’ “Lumpy, Beanpole and Dirt” (described by Strings as the “dark side of bluegrass”), and Tony Rice’s “Tipper” were other nice touches in the first set.

The second set was a perfect demonstration of why this band is unstoppable at the moment. “Dust in a Baggie,” Strings’s ode to a life wrecked by meth, and the Phish cover “Back on the Train” waved the jamgrass flag, while Jimmy Martin’s “Sophronie” and the Osborne Brothers’ “Ruby Are You Mad” scratched the traditional itch. Jeff Austin’s funky “15 Steps” was the perfect sonic bridge between the old school and new school sounds. Within that framework of stylistic twists, Strings wove in his own “Love & Regret,” “Fire Line,” and “Hide and Seek,” expanding the latter into epic proportions.

Strings and his band played a two-song encore, starting with the Grateful Dead’s tender “Brokedown Palace” (perhaps an image Roadrunner did not want to conjure, but sweet sounding nonetheless) and wrapping up with the jaunty “I’m Gone, Long Gone,” a fine display of vocal harmonizing and sprightly picking.

Where Roadrunner goes from here remains to be seen, but Strings did his part to open the room with a bang of a blessing.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.


  1. Don Thompson on March 17, 2022 at 10:43 am

    Well-written story Scott! Billy Strings is unstoppable at the moment for sure. The Roadrunner looks like an excellent venue. We have a newish one here in Denver called the Mission Ballroom. The capacity is nearly 4,000 with a moving stage to create a more intimate 2,200 if desired. We saw Billy Strings there in October and will see him at Red Rocks in May.

  2. Donald Marazo on March 17, 2022 at 1:38 pm

    Best guitar player on this planet.

    • Scott McLennan on March 17, 2022 at 4:47 pm

      And perhaps a couple of other planets too

  3. Edward Caron on March 17, 2022 at 5:04 pm

    A much needed venue in Boston opens, featuring a performer with great public image and following. Win win.
    Billy Strings’ Band delivers a “lightning in a bottle” experience night after night. Great to see him in a decent joint.

  4. Noah Schaffer on March 18, 2022 at 2:26 pm

    A fine review that makes me look forward to checking out this venue. It is a bit ironic that it is named after a song written by an artist who could never fill such a large venue, but that’s the music business for ya!

    • Scott McLennan on March 18, 2022 at 5:21 pm

      In a nice touch, Billy’s sound man cued up Garcia’s version of Jr Walker’s I’m a Roadrunner as the exit music

  5. Stringbuzz on March 18, 2022 at 3:22 pm


  6. ScrappyT on March 23, 2022 at 10:43 am

    I really agree with your review, especially the “pleasant surprise” of Roadrunner. I went in ready to hate this venue — how would they do 3,500 people general admission? I lived in NYC when Bowery opened Terminal 5, and I really hate that place (about 35% of the audience at a sold out show cannot see anything). Although, Bowery did well with Sinclair IMO.

    They nailed the design on Roadrunner. I was in the mezzanine for Billy Strings and the sound was incredible. I went back for Khruangbin on Thursday and stayed on the floor, and the sight lines were above average.

    I bought tickets to a couple more shows once I got home.

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