Funhouse Fest more than delivered on the music

In the best of “the show must go on” tradition, the Virginia Arts Festival’s Funhouse Fest kicked off right on time Friday with Bruce Hornsby and his Noisemakers, gray clouds and the threat of rain hovering all around.

Then, as promptly as weather apps predicted, an hour into his show, the fest site had to be evacuated due to a severe weather warning, asking folk to check the website for updates on what happens next or doesn’t.

An hour of so later, people flocked back into the tent and the grounds of the Arts Museums of Colonial Williamsburg to hear the evening’s main attraction, Alison Krauss.

It was quite a start to this third Funhouse Fest, which, under Hornsby’s leadership, has become a major event, drawing huge crowds, this year including Gov. Ralph Northam.

As in the past, the fest found Williamsburg’s Hornsby and his wide network of stars joining forces in an eclectic range of folk, blues, rock and country music. And, as a nod to Hornsby’s passion for more classical-modernist music, there was also a bit of that tossed into the mix along with members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

True to the form, the fest offered all of the above on two stages, one quite large under a massive tent and sold out weeks in advance for the opening concert, the other quite a bit smaller for more intimate hearings and lawn seating.

Entering the stage to shouts of “Bruce,” Hornsby and the Noisemakers wasted no time in raising the roof with the high energy “White Wheeled Limousine,” followed with the likes of “Circus on the Moon,” the latter interesting in its lyrics that mean otherwise but turned out to be telling “…watch out for the deluge I believe it’s coming soon.” Linking his songs with improv noodling on the keyboard, his output also offered the gently pulsating “Look Out Any Window” and “Looking for the Funhouse.” And then as he settled down with his dulcimer, the music stopped.

And then, after the weather cleared, it continued with the night‘s feature, Krauss, one of today’s leading country-blues singers. When she came on in her emerald green gown and long blond hair, the crowd gave her a rousing reception. Boasting a career of more than 30 years and 27 Grammy Awards, hers is a voice of beauty and passion of the sort often associated with Art Song. She applies her pure, ethereal-like vocal quality to lyrics in painting emotional images of detail and felt passion, the impact heard here.

Of her 20-some songs, her program offered much, many of them dealing with the often complicated world of love and life. Solidly backed by her band and Cox Family singers, she delivered such gems as “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Broadway,” the melancholic “River in the Rain,” “I Never Cared For You,” “Goodbye and So Long,” and “Gentle on My Mind,” the latter three from her recent “Windy City” album.

In addition to an upbeat “Keep on the Sunny Side” and rhythmic “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson,” she sang soulful, spiritual-traditional songs, among them “Down to the River to Pray,” “When God Dips His Love in My Heart,” and a touching “It is Well by My Soul.”

Saturday’s Fest began in the afternoon with seven acts between the two stages, starting with a rousing main stage performance by soul and rhythm and blues singer Deva Mahal, daughter of blues celebrity Taj Mahal. A dynamite vocalist who danced and pranced about the stage, Mahal’s delivery of such tunes as the impassioned “It’s Down to You” and “Optimist” from her “Run Deep” album was mighty and strong.

Also on the main stage was The Wood Brothers who offered rhythmic and very cool arrangements of country-bluegrass songs, among them “Postcards from Hell,” “Luckiest Man,” and “Tried and Tempted” and solo singer Amos Lee who sang and sang tirelessly, pumping out the likes of “Skipping Stone,” “Truth,” and “Sweet Pea.”

The smaller venue found a varied musical mix. There was the exploratory, improvised sounds of viola, bass clarinet, trumpet and percussion of Angela on the Arts; Noisemaker member guitarist-composer Gibb Droll whose return to the stage as a soloist after a number of years redefining his playing and music delivered a set of songs that depicted his obvious deep emotional connection to his music; and rock guitarist Chris Forsyth whose intense playing was reminiscent of Jerry Garcia and “The Grateful Dead.”

The day’s main event closed with Hornsby and members of the Virginia Symphony under guest conductor Adam Turner. It was an interesting combination born of an interesting connection between Hornsby and acclaimed conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

The two met at a gig and formed a bond that led to four orchestrations of Hornsby songs for Thomas’s New World Symphony and his “New Works” series. That led to seven more arrangements. This was the Virginia debut of the orchestral endeavors.

The arrangements skillfully blended Hornsby’s pop context with his penchant for working with modernist type classical composers as Webern, Carter, Schoenberg, Ligeti, and Messiaen and associated atonality and dissonance. Throughout his close to two-hour set were many signature signs of these modern designs and direction, moments during which he seemed most at ease and grooving, as heard, for example, in what sounded like a segment drawn from Messiaen’s piano sketches of small birds.

Hornsby and the VSO made a perfect pair, with Turner skillfully coordinating affairs between the two. The many songs included “Life in the Psychotropics”; “Here We Are Again”; “Every Little Kiss”; “The End of the Innocence”; the work that kicked off Hornsby’s career, “The Way It Is,” with vocal assists by Amos Lee and the Wood Brothers and a little Bach-like improv; and “Listen to the Mandolin Rain,” which marked another fine Funhouse Fest and time spent with the talented and affable Bruce Hornsby and friends.

Copyright © 2018, The Virginia Gazette
82°