While the focus of the Virginia Arts Festival was the Funhouse Fest, featuring Bruce Hornsby and friends, a prelude to the fun was a solo concert Thursday in Phi Beta Kappa Hall where, for two non-stop hours, Hornsby entertained a packed house with songs, banter, stories about growing up in Williamsburg and impressive piano wizardry.
The most apparent thing from this song-filled evening was how grounded Hornsby is.He's a major star yet he's a hometown fellow who made good but not so good that he can't spend time with us non-star types.His program was intimate, as if in his living room listening to him entertain with his unique blend of bluegrass, rock, blues, jazz, country and classical styles.There are no limits to what inspires him.
Among his many songs included on this program were "End of the Innocence," "Green Green Rocky Road," "Life in the Psychotropic's," "I Can't Make You Love Me," a couple of songs from his musical, "SCKBSTD," including one poking fun at Donald Trump; and the song that made him famous, "The Way It Is."
Hornsby is known for his keyboard work.However, the nature of this event showcased a depth of skill that stretched the limits of technique. Throughout, he started a melody and then transitioned into elements of classical composers as Elliot Carter, Webern, and Schoenberg, all masters of atonal, 12 tone-type writing.Very tough stuff.These moments illustrated rock solid technique and understanding of conceptually complex music.When in these excursions, he seemed to be in his element, grooving on the improvisational turns.The combination of styles heard in this PBK event showed Hornsby to be a musician with no limits, one who continues to explore and grow.
As for the Funhouse Fest, it was just that -- fun and festive.With tents all over the lawn of the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg selling food, wine and beer and souvenirs, it was the kind of big music event seen elsewhere. It was very cool that it was here.
Friday featured Hornsby and long-term collaborator Ricky Skaggs and his Kentucky Thunder band, with Greensky Bluegrass warming up the crowd.A mix of acoustic bluegrass and rock, Greensky started at dusk and almost as soon as they began, the power went off a few times.Once fixed, they played under limited lighting, at which point Hornsby and Skaggs came on stage with flashlights shining on the band so we could see who we'd been enjoying.Good sports and fun!
As for Hornsby and Skaggs, it was a full throttle performance, with all lights working.Skaggs is a great mandolin player whose skills were of the virtuoso level.Impressive, too, was his Kentucky Thunder -- solid musicians with solid beats, all locked into the spirit of this evening that highlighted the musical bond between the two Grammy stars.
The songs were many, among them "Dig a Hole," "The Way It Is," "20/20 Vision," "Super Freak," "Sally Jo" and "Dreaded Spoon," an ode to Dairy Queen that drew obvious associations with our own Queen Anne Dari Snak now facing closure.
Saturday's Fest focused on Hornsby and his Noisemakers singing all the songs on his newest album, "Rehab Reunion," his first without piano, and the debut album that won him his first Grammy, "The Way It Is."He said this was the first scripted, set list show they've given in years,promising that Sunday's would be a free for all.
The "Rehab" set, unlike his other albums and most certainly unlike "The Way It Is," has a down-home feel, Hornsby's dulcimer lending that comfortable, gentle, homespun sound that focuses emphasis on the spirit of the song.It covers a lot of territory, some of it thoughtful-sociological-spiritual, as in "Valley Road," "Soon Enough" and "Celestial Railroad," some lighter, as in "Tipping," "TSA Man," and "M.I.A in Miami," all signs of Hornsby's creativity and his group's energy and talent, including some dynamite washboard and spoon playing.It was mature Hornsby at his constantly evolving best.
For as much as the fans enjoyed "Rehab," "The Way It Is" got the crowd rocking.Playing piano, accordion, and dulcimer, Hornsby and band drew nonstop shouts of "Bruce" and cheers and whistles.Levels of frenzy came with "On the Western Skyline," "Mandolin Rain," "Red Plains" and "The Way It Is." It was an awesome program of unrelenting energy.
Sunday's closing program with Hornsby and the Noisemakers was, as promised, wide open, with songs from all over his charts.At one point, he referred to lyrics and joked that with some 120-plus songs to his credit, it's tough remembering them all, especially when you get older, adding it's easier when you're 30 and have only eight or nine songs to sing.
He also said of an earlier song that most of us probably didn't know the song but that made no difference;the important thing is to feel it.And that was true for his program.Known or not, all of the songs felt good, were energy driven and found folk on their feet much of the night rocking and rolling to the likes of "Funhouse," "Jacob's Ladder," "Shadow Hand" and songs from "Hot House." Hornsby's brother Bobby even jammed with the group a bit, helping expand the feel-good feeling.
The three-day fest also included performances by groups picked by Hornsby for variety and appeal.In addition to Greensky Bluegrass, there were the likes ofRailroad Earth and its acoustic country rock sound, Colvin & Earle and their folk-country blend, and a crowd favorite, Taj Mahal Trio and its infectious blend of acoustic blues and island beats.
Bottom line: Hornsby's Funhouse Fest showed the man's mighty musical mettle, along with his musical friends, all of which made this a Virginia Arts Festival moment to remember.
John Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."