Cellarmaker Brewing Company out of San Francisco has built a stellar reputation for their consistent artisanal brews. As evidenced from their fifth-anniversary celebration hosted at Great American Music Hall last Saturday night, they sure know how to treat their community. Foremost the evening’s entertainment was a fine progressive bluegrass lineup of Billy Strings with Cold and in the Bay supporting. The show sold out months in advance, same as Billy’s Halloween-time gig at Slims the year before. No hyperbole about it, Strings is the real deal. Studied in Ralph Stanley, Tony Rice, Black Sabbath and Pearl Jam. He’s attracted newcomers to bluegrass, and bluegrass purists to the jams. The perfect balance of traditional and genre-bending, Strings refined his skillset studying his father’s picking as a boy. The story came full-circle when Billy got to bring his proud pops onstage with Del McCoury Band at Nashville’s bluegrass temple, Ryman Auditorium to pick a few tunes.
Last Saturday evening in San Francisco, there was an unusually long line wrapped to the corner of Larkin off O’Farrell Street. The pros who run Great American got the animated thousand-person line inside surprisingly quickly. The storied venue opened in 1907 is one of the few remaining legendary Bay Area venues. Running independent of music-group monopolies, they are a quintessential part of San Francisco’s music scene. This particular evening, the 5th anniversary of Cellarmaker, included an assortment of beer stations featuring wild ales and IPAs from Sante Adarius Rustic Ales, The Rare Barrell, Tired Hands, and others. A charity event for Downtown Streets Team, all beer proceeds went to help the homeless. They must have raised a mint. A pleasantly social crowd preceded the music with a two-hour beer session before Cold & In The Bay took the stage.
The steady tribute to Old & In The Way kicked the musical proceedings off nicely, basing their playing and harmonies after the classic lineup of Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and John Kahn. They did a damn fine job on favorites such as “Lonesome LA Cowboy,” “Moonlight Midnight,” “Wild Horses,” and “The Hobo Song.” After a solid hour-long opening set, the stage and mood were plenty set for the transcendental Billy Strings to blow the collective minds of those in attendance. The founders of Cellarmaker stepped onstage to cheers the crowd, thank the venue and acknowledge the Cellarmaker staff in attendance, before boisterously introducing Billy Strings and his band.
Aside from his unparalleled flatpicking skills, his fine quartet brings the rowdiness out of canonical bluegrass tunes. Billy Failing on banjo, Royal Masat on double bass, and Jarrod Walker on mandolin. Proper three- and four-part harmonies elevate the quartet above other impressive jamgrass outfits. Billy’s band played a two-set romper consisting of originals and a diverse treasure-trove of covers. Strings had his Thompson Guitars’ acoustic attached to an array of pedals, breaking out effects at the right times while staying within the vein of grass instead of transgressing into rock’n’roll. Billy Strings is no jamband. But he sure can jam.
Billy and the boys broke out Grateful Dead often played “Me and My Uncle” and “China Doll,” perhaps in an ode to their Dead’s celebrated 1975 performance at the same venue. Originals from his provocative “Turmoil & Tinfoil” album such as “Meet Me at the Creek,” and “These Memories of You,” are acquiring different flavors from a couple years on the road. The title cut from the album, one of the trippiest jams of the evening, surpassed the ten-minute mark. Canonical covers such as Bill Monroe’s “Little Maggie,” and John Hartford’s “Steam Powered Aeroplane,” exposed the cheering bluegrass diehards from those coincidentally in attendance. Regardless of whoever came more for the beer or more for the music, the event was a smashing success full-circle.
The rising-star turned bandleader is the 21st century’s answer to Blake & Rice, the next incarnation of newgrass, the one who will carry the torch. Catch Billy Strings on tour before the show sells out, as they mostly do.