Concert Review: Billy Gilman @ Wood Theater, 1/28/2023
GLENS FALLS – “So who are you going to see tonight?” My mom asked.
I placed my hands on the seat back in front of me. “I want you to guess,” I replied coyly, “but I’ll give you some clues.”
My parents gazed at me in wait.
“First clue: this is a name you haven’t thought about in 20-ish years. Second, this singer is about my age…”
I paused and I could see the calculation going on behind my parents’ eyes.
“Third,” I said with a bit of a sheepish grin, “I had the biggest crush on him in elementary school and middle school.”
“Billy Gilman,” my dad said matter of fact without hesitation.
“That’s right! My final clue would have been ‘his Christmas album still slaps.”
My mom said, “I would have gotten it at that one.”
It’s true. The Billy Gilman “Classic Christmas” album is still a steadfast staple of our holiday season playlists.
I was a little bit surprised my dad had guessed correctly. Though I suppose I shouldn’t be; the music library of 8-year-old me was rather limited. The only things I listened to during that time of my life were whatever they listened to. I don’t think I’d even been introduced to Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, or NSYNC yet.
Billy Gilman hopped on a rocket to fame (and right into the hearts of many youngins—guilty as charged) in 2000, releasing his hit and premier single “One Voice.” He became the world’s youngest Billboard Country #1 holder at the age of 11 and sold more than 10 million albums. He even earned himself quite a few accolades, including an AMA award and a couple of Grammy noms.
I was super excited to see and hear this figure from my past; unfortunately, one that seldom had crossed my mind, even as his songs were scattered among my shuffled playlists. But when 20 years and puberty have passed, it’s hard to know what to expect. But if Mr. Gilman’s relatively recent past as runner-up on The Voice is any indication of where the evening would take me, it was going to be a great night of music.
Billy Gilman was the first of the 2023 Charles R. Woods Theater’s “Close Up” series, offering an intimate and conversational experience with the artist. Preceding Billy’s stage time was Bravely, a Glens Falls sister trio consisting of Finley, Avery, and Briar. The three girls were fresh-faced, as young as 14. They were placed on the stage by DJ Kevin Richards, who had seen them performing plein air one night on the sidewalks. He knew he needed to feature them at a show and felt Billy Gilman was a great fit. I concur. Their set was sweet and country motific and tickled your eardrums in a pleasant way. They serenaded us with songs by Taylor Swift, Sugarland, Dolly Parton, and a few other songs that we all knew sugar-coated in gorgeous three-part harmonies.
In between sets, we were treated to a Q&A session with Billy which offered us a brief insight into the man behind the mic. Positioned on a stool, he answered the inquiries of curious minds with endearing genuineness. Every so often, he’d drop a self-deprecating quip that we’d all chuckle at. I could be entirely off base with the following, but in these moments I inferred a little bit of imposter syndrome within him. To me, it would make sense given the somewhat tumultuous relationship he admitted to having with music over the course of his life. But placed before a blown-up projection of his debut album (from 2000), it gave me a real opportunity to juxtapose the new Billy with the old one. More changes became evident as he performed, and as a whole, he was somehow both different and exactly the same. He looked at times an entirely separate person (as he should have)—structured, chiseled, and scruffy, matured with solid musculature, and “per sempre nel mio cuore [forever in my heart]” adorning the length of his forearm in tattoo ink. But every so often, he’d make expressions that melted all of those years away and left us with his boyish grin and sparkling big blue eyes; the exact same as the boy on the CD cover. It was beautiful, honestly. The audience, mostly consisting of middle-aged women, swooned over this adult that commanded their attention. Some men were probably wooed too. The woman sitting next to me had never heard of him before that night, but by the end, she was videoing him and exclaiming how handsome he was. She’s not wrong.
I never saw him perform as a child, but it was obvious how much of a seasoned performer he had become, even with—no, especially with—only a backing track and no full band to support him. There was nothing to hide behind. He was confident and energetic and had insane stage presence. Hey Billy, drop your cardio routine. He sang with all of his gusto the songs of my youth, like “Elisabeth” and “Oklahoma,” the latter being what he claimed was his favorite. The words came back to me as if they’d never left. While I snapped photos I was swaying and humming along with that feeling of joy and nostalgia swelling inside my chest. He served us his new music, like “Get It Got It Good” and “Wish You Were Here.” He gave us fun covers, like “Shut Up and Dance” (by Walk the Moon) and Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” (here lies one of those moments of adult Billy vs. kid Billy. IYKYK.) His repertoire included songs from his time on The Voice, like the one he said was the hardest he ever had to learn—”Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson. Most notably to me, he sang a stellar rendition of Adele’s “All I Ask” and I’m so glad that there’s a studio version of this on Spotify.
A weak link in his set was his cover of “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten. Maybe it’s because I’ve always hated that song, but it’s just so monotonous and doesn’t show off the range of any singer. Please, I beg of you Billy, switch it out for something else. Perhaps the bluesy & coy “Shamey Shamey Shame” or a transposed and keyed-down version of the upbeat “You Don’t You Won’t.” Maybe something old you’ve done but is also timeless like “Little Bitty Pretty One” (sung by the likes of Jackson 5 and Huey Lewis & The News, but originally done by Thurston Harris in 1957). Don’t want to sing any more old stuff? Your new stuff, like “Soldier” is a solid replacement. Or, if you want another cover, I think you’d be hella good at a version of “House of the Rising Sun.”
In his encore, he sang the Journey classic “Don’t Stop Believing” and brought down his voice teacher (or was it his voice teacher’s daughter? I can’t remember) to accompany him, which was a surprise to her. It was a fun moment to watch. To bring the evening full circle, he ended with “One Voice.” “One Voice” is a beautiful, spiritual, and hopeful song written in the wake of the Columbine tragedies. In today’s climate where so many shootings have happened since then, he said it’s a song that’s more important than ever—or in his words, “with everything happening today” it’s more important than ever. In 2021 he updated his most famous song to an a capella version featuring Home Free. It was captivating and haunting, and in the depths of this song, I found myself with goose pimples and a little pang of sadness in my gut.
After the show, I got the brief opportunity to talk to him and give him a hug. I, of course, shared with him that I had the biggest crush on him. I told him how much I still love his Christmas album. And in a memory that resurfaced not long before the show, I told him that I auditioned for a special choir with his song “There’s a Hero.” I got the part, so I owe Billy thanks for those days I spent in Mr. Pisanello’s Sound Sensation choir.
It was surreal to have a person so central to my journey of music love step back into my life 20 years later. He was a total stranger, but it felt like we grew up together all the same. It was a reunion of sorts and that was bittersweet. I hope I bump into him again down the road as we grow through our journeys in this industry. Preferably, however, I hope it’s not in another 20 years.
Ok, so now can someone find Tom Felton and Legolas? No, not Orlando Bloom, I’ll only accept Legolas. I suddenly have a new list of celebrities I need to check off.
- I Know
- Wishing You Were Here
- Say You Will
- Lonely (unreleased)
- Watermelon Sugar
- Good Life
- Maybe I’m Crazy
- Get It Got It Good
- Fight Song
- Man in the Mirror
- All I Ask
- Shut Up and Dance
- Don’t Stop Believing
- One Voice
Thanks to Mark, Frank, and Kevin for making this great evening happen for me.
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