Consider the confidence necessary to open a new Boston music venue at this specific moment. For most of the past two years, there was functionally no live music ecosystem, and when it started up again six months ago, there was a sense that it was all tentative, as if even the stages that boasted something like a full schedule were aware that it could all go kerflooey at any time. And the fact that not all of Boston’s music halls made it through the storm of the pandemic was a stark reminder that even the smallest and nimblest of clubs struggle for survival, to say nothing of the megamillion-dollar behemoths.
But Tuesday night, in an act of staunchly defiant hopefulness, Roadrunner opened its doors. It’s one thing for a venue to resume operations; it’s another to begin operations entirely, building up a full concert calendar from scratch in competition with the lineups developed by other, preexisting venues that benefited from a half-year operational advantage. And it’s yet another to go as big as Roadrunner goes, a 3,500-capacity space in the shadow of WGBH and within shouting distance of the Boston Landing commuter rail intended not to replace the cozy, divey vibe of Great Scott (R.I.P.) but to eat the lunch of the smaller-by-half House of Blues.
For one glorious, vanishingly brief moment, Roadrunner held the envious honor of boasting the cleanest restrooms in the Boston music scene, but there were other advantages of the space that should prove longer-lasting. The wrap-around mezzanine featured leveled steps that effectively acted as bleachers for those who preferred to sit, creating a sports arena vibe. (The massive floor, meanwhile, was large enough that standing back near the soundboard put enough of the crowd in your field of vision to take on the feel of a festival show.) And the sight lines were uniformly superb, with clear views of the stage from the mezzanine, anywhere on the floor, and even the entryway, a nice boon for latecomers.
Oh, and there was also music. Bluegrass voyager Billy Strings was Roadrunner’s first-ever act, and he played long enough in his two-set, three-hour sold-out show that he seemed like the second act to play Roadrunner as well. Backed by mandolin, banjo, and upright bass and opening, cannily, with “Big Ball in Boston,” he ripped through one blazing stomper after another, tight string-band arrangements given jam-band space to explore. “Ruby, Are You Mad” was crazy fast and crazy virtuosic, with a momentum growing with each additional solo, while a wah-wah effect on Strings’s guitar and a nearly imperceptible shift to half time turned the sharp, zippy “The Fire on My Tongue” into bluegrass funk.
Strings occasionally went farther afield. The freeform group strumming and plucking that preceded “Pyramid Country” might have been avant-bluegrass exploration or simply warming up, but the echo effect on his rapid, muted soloing bounced notes off of one another in unorthodox ways. The instruments in “Fire Line” crisscrossed one another instead of charging in lockstep. And when he slowed down to breathe, as in the more relaxed sway of “I Only Exist” and “Two Soldiers” and the hand-holding sing-along of the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace,” Strings managed to locate a heart amid all the flash. Once the fanfare of its opening subsides, perhaps Roadrunner will do the same.
At Roadrunner, Tuesday
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.