When Williamsburg's newest music festival debuts next weekend, it'll marry the sounds of megastars Emmylou Harris and Norah Jones with up-and-comers Mandolin Orange and Parker Millsap.
Williamsburg Live is the successor to Bruce Hornsby's Funhouse Fest, and you can listen to its Americana inspired lineup from June 21-22.
“I’m going to be sitting on the front row both of these nights, and all four of these artists are artists I would travel to see,” said Robert Cross, executive director for Virginia Arts Festival.
“I think it’s a good weekend because of the different genres we’re going to hear. and these artists really lend themselves well to festival settings,” Cross said.
Mandolin Orange, the folk duo opening Saturday night for Emmylou Harris, blends the twang of a banjo with singing as smooth as forest moss.
Cross said Virginia Arts Festival has tried to book Mandolin Orange before, but Williamsburg Live is the first time an event has lined up with the duo’s schedule.
“Personally, I really love newer, modern folk music, and singer-songwriter people who have these great voices and really good harmony,” Cross said. “So I can just put (a Mandolin Orange) CD on and just listen to it over and over again.”
Emily Frantz, instrumentalist and singer, said she met the other half of Mandolin Orange, Andrew Marlin, at a bluegrass jam in their hometown of Warrenton, North Carolina.
“Our beginnings were steeped in more traditional music,” she said.
While developing their own songs, they played a lot of classical bluegrass, and Frantz said she’s excited they were asked to open for Harris.
“She’s probably one of the first artists that I really looked up to,” Frantz said. “I think I was introduced to her from a really early age because she’s such a household name …so I just feel she’s one of the artists I’ve revered for the longest.”
“(Mandolin Orange) seemed like a very good compliment to Emmylou Harris so we reached out to Emmylou’s folks and said this is what we’re thinking for the first artist of the evening and she said ‘they sound fantastic, go for it,” Cross said.
"I think they’ll bring a younger audience, because they’re really popular in that 25- to 35-year-old age group.”
Frantz said Mandolin Orange’s popularity came from people sharing their music and connecting with it on a personal level.
“So as the shows have been growing and getting bigger and more and more stuff is coming out, it seems to be really personal for people,” Frantz said.
Frantz said Marlin is the duo’s songwriter.
“Even though we’ve seen all this success and have released a handful of albums it seems the songwriting is still a super personal place for (Marlin), where he’s just writing what he feels he needs to write in the moment,” Frantz said. “People hear the songs and hear the emotions and it usually means something different to the person standing beside them than it did to Andrew when he was writing it.”
After 10 years, Frantz said they still love to perform.
“And that’s the fun part — it’s not just about recording or making a song sound a certain way every time. We try to approach every show individually,” Frantz said.
Friday night's opener for Norah Jones, Parker Millsap, is known for embracing soulful vocals and rhythmic guitar in his music.
“I like the transparency of (his music),” Cross said. “He’s just a really good singer-songwriter, a beautiful voice, good storyteller.”
Millsap said he got into music through his church.
“I had a lot of my formative music experience there,” he said. “As soon as I could play four chords and operate a campo, they kind of let me sit down front during the music service and play along, and then when I didn’t do too bad they let me plug into the PA.”
Millsap said he met his bass player, Michael Rose, in high school. The two played together out of a mutual love for the blues, but after they started getting gigs Millsap began writing his own music.
The past couple of years have been big for Millsap. He played the 10th annual Apple Music Festival with Elton John, released a new album last May and got engaged in December.
“Really, I’m making a little more money making music than I did before, but I think my goals are still the same, which are keep playing, keep creating,” Millsap said.
“Everything has been kind of gradual for me … I’m able to handle opportunities as they’re handed to me. I’m just grateful to get to do cool (things) all the time.”
Millsap said writing songs are lessons in personal development for him. “It’s like looking in a mirror and asking ‘what does this say about me?”
“I don’t know who or where or what I’d be if I wasn’t a musician, it’s been part of my life for so long that I have a hard time thinking about a life not doing this.”
Millsap is excited to open for Jones because he is a big fan of her work. In high school, he played Jones’ CD of “The Fall” until it wore out. He said he jumped at the opportunity to play the festival.
“Obviously he’s a more emerging artist, but just really soulful kind of a nice vibe I think in contrast to Norah (Jones),” Cross said.
Want to attend?
The festival will run June 21-22 on the lawn at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. Box office opens 1 p.m., VIP gates open 5 p.m. and regular entrance 6 p.m. Music starts at 7:30 p.m.
Lawn tickets cost $45 for one night or $80 for both. Tickets under the big tent range from $60-$100 for one day, or $114-$190 for both. Gold VIP packages are $125 per night or $237 for both nights. Purchase at 282-2822, vafest.org/williamsburg-live/ and the Virginia Arts Festival box office at 410 Bank St., Norfolk.
A shuttle will run from the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center, 101 Visitor Center Drive, to Merchants Square. Those without CW tickets will be allowed on the shuttle for the event.
During the concerts, spokesman for the Williamsburg Police Department John Heilman said people can expect daylong closures of South Nassau Street from Prince George Street to Newport Avenue, and Francis Street from South Henry Street to South England Street. He wasn’t sure when the streets will reopen.
The main entrance and box office is at the corner of South Nassau and Francis streets. The VIP only entrance is on South Henry Street.
No glass, coolers, outside food or drinks are allowed. One factory sealed water bottle per person is allowed. Food and drink will be available for purchase.
Blankets, cushions and chairs are allowed, but chairs are only permitted on the lawn.
Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.