The return of Bruce Hornsby's Funhouse Fest is finally upon us. The second iteration of the Williamsburg native's music festival brings new artists, a second stage and more expansive lawn seating for a decidedly more grandiose event.
"Funhouse is a broad range stylistically, musically," the Grammy winner said at a news conference in May. "This Funhouse Fest is very different from last year."
Last year emphasized bluegrass. He likened 2017's female-centric lineup to his own Lilith Fair. New artists this year include Sheryl Crow and British folk rock femme fatales, the Staves. The lineup's diversity extends beyond gender. Music brings orchestral chamber music to the festival, Lake Street Dive adds a blues-jazz-roots twist and Kenny Garrett will unleash his saxophone prowess on the crowd.
Festival organizers began setting up for the event Sunday morning, with preparations continuing through the week leading up to the weekend's festivities. By Friday, two stages, lights, sound equipment and more will stretch across the lawn of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.
"This is definitely a year-round project," said Gregg Damanti, the production director for the Virginia Arts Festival. He and his organization held numerous meetings with Hornsby's production team, the city of Williamsburg, security firms and more in an effort to ensure a fun and safe weekend.
"The folks at Colonial Williamsburg are great partners on this project. Same with the city of Williamsburg," Damanti said. "It makes things easy. It seems everyone is moving toward making a successful event."
This week, all the talk becomes reality. The tent will ultimately seat 1,776, the same as last year's festival. This year, the site will extend across Francis Street for extra lawn seating, and the restrooms will move there as well. A large LED screen will give lawn patrons a better view of the performers.
"It's a bit bigger this year," Damanti said, adding that there have been no issues thus far.
"The big question mark is the weather," he said, but he stressed that guests need not worry too much thanks to the tent.
The festival hires dozens of workers from around the area to help with the event as contractors, stage crew and more. This boosts the local economy, a highlight of the endeavor for Damanti.
Organizers hope to finish setting up by Thursday afternoon, after which they'll face two city inspections to ensure everything is ready for the weekend's crowds.
Damanti said he's grateful to Hornsby for bringing such an event along with new music to the area.
"It gives folks in this region an opportunity to see bands that you might have to travel to California, to Coachella, to see," he said. "It really puts Williamsburg on the map."
Keeping Williamsburg "cool"
Kyle McCormick, a Virginia Arts Festival production assistant helping with the event, said the highlight of last year's festival was the diverse crowd spanning generations.
"Everybody was having a good time, enjoying themselves, enjoying the music," he said. "It's just a good time for all. You're almost guaranteed to have fun."
The colonial setting also puts a unique spin on the festival concept.
"It's awesome that they allow us to do it on such a historic property," he said. It's a great backdrop."
Bob Harris, the vice president of tourism for the Greater Williamsburg Tourism and Chamber Alliance, similarly praised the juxtaposition between historic area and the festival's array of new music.
"It helps our cool factor," he said. It's another thing that makes people realize Williamsburg is a well-rounded place."
It also speaks to the city's infrastructure and ability to work alongside organizations like the Virginia Arts Festival.
"It shows people that we can handle that kind of concert," Harris said.
Perhaps most importantly, he said it captures the feeling of excitement people expect from a music festival. Harris said that stems from the way Hornsby seems to genuinely care about Williamsburg.
"He's just a local, nice person," Harris said. "He's very unassuming. That, to me, makes him more endearing."
Damanti will be helping out over the weekend, and he's eager to enjoy the performances while he manages the two stages, which will offer alternating sets to keep people engaged while the other is set up.
"Once the music starts, it doesn't stop until the end of the concert," he said.
The festival lineup
Friday: Gates open at 5:30 p.m. Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers take the main stage at 7 p.m. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra String Quartet performs on the acoustic stage at 8:30 p.m. Sheryl Crow concludes the evening on the main stage at 9:15 p.m.
Saturday: Gates open at 3 p.m. Kenny Garrett takes the main stage at 4:30 p.m. Music appears on the acoustic stage at 5:30; they will join the Staves for a main stage performance at 6 p.m. before returning to the acoustic stage for a 6:45 p.m. set. Lake Street Dive performs on the main stage at 7:15. Music performs one last time on the acoustic stage at 8:15 p.m. Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers will perform Grateful Dead classics on the main stage at 8:45 p.m. Other festival performers including the Staves will join them throughout the set.
Sunday: Gates open at 3 p.m. Hiss Golden Messenger takes the main stage at 4 p.m., followed by the Staves at 5:45 p.m. On the acoustic stage, Bruce Hornsby and Sonny Emory duo will perform at 6:45 p.m. Rhiannon Giddens finishes the festival at 8 p.m. on the main stage.
Food and drinks
Several food trucks will be onsite each day of the festival. Options include barbecue from Cast Iron Catering Company and Two Drummers Off Beat Eats, Bodacious Pizza, upscale fare from Food-A-Tude and history-inspired dishes from Colonial Williamsburg Taverns. Several breweries, including Williamsburg's Alewerks, will serve regional craft beers.
"We've definitely upped our stock in terms of wine and beer from last year," Damanti said, a response to running out of wine on the opening night of last year's festival.
A tent devoted to selling water will keep guests hydrated. Recycling bins are also a new addition this year. Outside food and drinks are prohibited.
Organizers recommend guests to bring cash. Alcohol vendors are cash only. The nearest ATM is the Merchants Square SunTrust Bank at 202 N. Henry St.
In the wake of recent world events, security can be a concern for many. To curb those concerns, the festival enlisted the assistance of several different organizations. Colonial Williamsburg security, Richmond-based RMC Events and Williamsburg police will supply personnel and coordinate efforts to keep the event safe.
Maj. Greg Riley, of the city's police department, said attendees are best off planning ahead, knowing what to bring and what to avoid packing.
"It will make their entrance a lot easier," he said.
The department's goal is "making sure people are safe who are going." Riley said there were no issues last year.
"It was a greatly successful event," he said. Last year didn't require additional traffic control, but they will step in if necessary.
A few additional officers will be present Friday evening, mainly due to Sheryl Crow's appearance. Riley said they have no specific concerns.
Personal lawn chairs are permitted for lawn seating, but seats that recline, hold umbrellas or feature foot extensions are not. Legs must be 17 inches or less and backs must be 32 inches off the ground or less. Cushions and blankets no larger than a beach towel are allowed.
No coolers or outside food and beverages are allowed. Sealed water bottles are acceptable. Other items not permitted: umbrellas, pets, weapons, flammable lanterns or candles, explosives, hula hoops, tables, banners, signs.
Smoking is not expressly prohibited on the lawn, but organizers encourage anyone bothered by smoke to speak with staff, who reserve the right to ask smokers to refrain or move.
Organizers and police are encouraging attendees to park at the Visitor Center at 101 Visitor Center Drive. Signs will be posted to help navigation. A free shuttle will transport people to the festival site from 9 a.m.-midnight on Friday and Saturday and 9 a.m.-11 p.m. on Sunday.
Want to go?
The festival runs Friday through Sunday on the lawn of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.
Three-day ticket options range from $96.98 to $270.75. Single-day tickets range from $29.95 to $200. Gold VIP and Gold Elite Experience three-day and Friday passes are sold out, but they remain available for Saturday and Sunday. Gold VIP tickets include reserved tent seating, preferred parking, VIP restrooms and access to the VIP tent with exclusive food and beverage options. Gold Elite tickets include those and artist meet and greet opportunities.
Tickets may be purchased tickets at the gate, online at funhousefest.com, by phone at 282-2822 or at the Virginia Arts Festival Box Office. Lawn seating is free for children under 6.
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.