Live Review

My Hornsby Infatuation, Salute to Garcia, and Rhiannon Giddens’ Musical Freedom Rites

Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers on June 24, 2017

A beautiful sunset breaks the summer sky over Rhiannon Giddens' closing set of Bruce Hornsby's magical Funhouse Fest 2017. (Photo by Ron Wray)

May be a curious thing for a 60-something, married straight guy to say. But, I think I may be falling in love with Bruce Hornsby. Don’t get me wrong, in a romantic context, I’d be much more interested in responding to the appeal of one of the Staveley-Taylor sisters of The Staves for applications for suitors to be left at the stage with one’s name and height. But, then, even though I’m 5’ll”, I am married, happily I should perhaps add, and probably wouldn’t meet any of her other, unstated requirements. Thing is, Hornsby and Staveley-Taylor and her sisters were all key elements, along with standouts like Rhiannon Giddens, in Bruce’s phenomenal musical gift to his hometown, the second annual Funhouse Fest in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

Over the course of Funhouse Fest, I was beyond impressed, entertained, amused, and inspired with and by what I’ve come to observe, hear musically, and learn otherwise about and from “Williamsburg’s own” and America’s musical artistic treasure, Bruce Hornsby. Funhouse Fest itself was a knockout and featured, in addition to Hornsby himself, Rhiannon Giddens, bringing down the house to end the fest, as well as Sheryl Crow, Lake Street Dive, Kenny Garrett, The Staves, Hiss Golden Messenger, Sonny Emory, yMusic, The Virginia Symphony Orchestra String Quartet, and Bruce’s Noisemakers band.

Did you catch that list?  Popular, jazz, choral, rock, and classical are genres of music that could describe the headliners of the Fest. Not your everyday, garden-variety festival. But then, nothing Hornsby does is ordinary or run-of-the-mill.

 The World’s Greatest Dead Cover Band

Yes, it was a great night of music on Saturday, the show that featured Bruce doing Garcia. It was Deadhead nirvana! For someone who loves the Dead as I have, it was remarkable, and the way Bruce put all the pieces together made it one of the best shows I think I’ve ever seen, reaching a real crescendo of musical joy. Topping it off, , then,  in his encore, with a quiet finish, playing one of my absolutely favorite songs, "Ripple," from the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty album.

 I enjoyed how Hornsby worked his magic, with a strong voice and swinging, deeply melodic, yet often searching outside the lines, playing on his grand piano. Then zapping an arm to the east or south, etc., at one or another of the artistic talents he’d have coming on and off stage like a Bleecker-Street subway stop.

The Staves joined in. They layered voice on voice, blending like a section of the richest cookies and cream fudge dipped in rare brandy. Their singing was at times made off-beat and classically buoyant when joined by the young classical ensemble, yMusic.

yMusic came on with an original section of music unique to them, with avant stylings tripping along with more melodic gestures. They blended with The Stave’s harmonies and Bruce’s keystrokes, which were blazing in the early summer air.

Enter brother Bobby, whom Bruce called a “Deadhead extraordinaire,” leaving the world of Williamsburg real estate behind for a few minutes of matching voices with brother Bruce and some powerful electric guitar on the Dead’s “Brown-Eyed Women.”

Brown-eyed women and red grenadine/The bottle was dusty, but the liquor was clean.

Daddy made the whiskey/and he made it well/costs two-dollars and it burned like hell.

And also on stage came M.C. Taylor, aka Hiss Golden Messenger to rock the dead alive along with his Messenger partner, another icon, Scott Hirsch, adding more layers of voice and guitar.

And, Lake Street Dive’s lovely Rachael Price, moving elegantly to the beat, sang her beautiful, rich lungs out with another highpoint of the performance, singing “Morning Dew” and other Grateful Dead standards, which I found stirring and comforting. She was bringing another level of musical homage to the everlasting work of Jerry Garcia and his band of renown, and, boy, did she bring it!

Walk me out in the morning dew my friend/Walk me out in the morning dew today
Can't walk you out in the morning dew my friend/Can't walk you out in the morning dew today

The next day, HGM’s M.C. (Michael) Taylor said that Bruce had quietly gone about forming, in Taylor’s words, probably the best Grateful Dead cover band ever.  Bruce would, during the concert, sit and bop and play with a look of wonderment about his eyes and mouth, then stand to conduct, raising and lowering sound levels by the artists or the sound techs, moving from one artist or group of performers to the other, backed up throughout by the versatile, ever-changing Noisemakers.

Rhiannon Encompasses a World Brilliantly

Back to Bruce later, I want to shift now to Sunday night, the grand finale led by final act, the explosive and beautiful set performed by Rhiannon Giddens and her extensive, superbly talented band, featuring several branches of her own family tree.

The beautiful Rhiannon, who arrived in a huge sleek bus in tones of black and golden brown, brought a busload of talent to the stage. Reminding the audience of her beginnings in the iconic Carolina Chocolate Drops, she introduced several of that band who are still with her, including Hubby Jenkins and Rowan Corbett.,

The reference to CCD was in part also to remind folks of her intention to pay homage to the beauty and courage of her ancestors sold and re-sold into slavery, abuse, and hardship. For that reason, she said, her visits to the surrounding Colonial Williamsburg were of mixed feeling for her, as she was brought, in her mind, to face-to-face confrontation with the realities of slavery in colonial days and the current remnants of racism still flirting with rampant spread in current times.

Accordingly her show had many references to the history, irony, and pain of Black history in America, along with songs expressing the joy, beauty, and spirit of the slaves and their progeny down through subsequent decades to now.

Pop Staples’ Freedom Highway was a ferocious and stirring ride in Rhiannon’s hands and voice.

March for freedom's highway/March each and every day
Made up my mind and I won't turn around
Made up my mind and I won't turn around

As country/folk/rock’s David Childers’ said simply in response to a video I sent him shot by friend Jim Morrison that night of Rhiannon singing “We Could Fly” - “big, beautiful voice.” That encompasses much of the show, especially her rendition of a song done by white country great Patsy Cline, doing justice and then some to Cline’s awesome “She’s Got You.”

As Morrison pointed out in a Facebook post, her show included a real mix.

There were elements of folk, country, soul, ragtime, blues, ethnic music, rap, jigs, and gospel.

Giddens matched voices with her sister and brought out her nephew to do one of the best raps I’ve ever heard, his deep, strong voice belying his young looks and bringing out the strength of the rapid fire, rappily-hippy hoppy lyrics.

Like Bruce, she would orchestrate at times, shooting out an arm to the drummer emphatically to show where the beat should blare into the night or indicating where the solos should flow among her eloquent sidemen and women.

“We Could Fly,” was also a highlight. It is based, she said, on the myth of slaves who had flown into the skies,leaving the horrors of slavery behind. It remained a wondrous dream and intention deep in the souls of those remaining slaves, enchained and digging the dirt of their well-to-do colonial white men and women owners. It’s a song that brings beauty into the midst of horror, as did the myth itself.

Daughter, dear daughter, I'll tell you something true
Remember Gran Eliza, well, every night she flew
They tried to keep her down but there was nothing they could do
She could fly, she could fly
She could slip the bonds of earth and rise so high
She could fly across the river/Her spirit in her hands
Searching, always searching for the promised land

A few other notes about the star who closed this year’s Funhouse Fest. 

  • She appears in the fifth season of CMT’s Nashville as Hannah Lee "Hallie" Jordan, “a social worker with the voice of an angel.”
  • Giddens is biracial in ancestry and married Irish musician Michael Laffan. The couple have a daughter, Aoife, and a son, Caoimhín. She has homes in Greensboro, NC and Limerick, Ireland.
  • And, I don’t think many know that she was a student of opera at Oberlin Conservatory.

Witty and Outspoken

Back to Bruce. He played again, as he did throughout the weekend, before Rhiannon’s set, in the nearby, smaller tented stage and lawn. A jazzy set of his imaginative, creative, and genre-defying stuff for fans who were stretched out on the green grass of the art museum’s extensive lawns. A gig played intricately with world-class and legacy-rich drummer Sonny Emory, matching Bruce’s musical choices stroke by stroke and widely-diverse note for note.

Emory is African American. The festival had a nice mix of black and white talent, and perhaps accordingly a more mixed crowd than one sometimes sees.  A real blend of young and old too, about as diverse a festival or performance crowd as I’ve seen in that way.  And, too, numerous women performing, a feminine array of talent ever moving across the stages and creating beautiful music. Hornsby said at one point that he’d created a mini Lilith Fair of sorts and liked it that way.

In this set he did many of his own tunes, ones in which he’d start with Shostakovich or Schoenberg and move into a poppy, jazzy, or rocking mix with a rich choice of language and subject matter including one about a couple whose relationship had created historic controversy in Williamsburg. Hornby and Emory were endlessly challenging each other as the rhythms shifted and flowed, with Bruce at times breaking out in a big smile as Emory came up with a musical answer to the challenge BH had just laid down.

Bruce lives about two blocks away from the scene of this musical magnificence he created, as does his charming mother Lois. One volunteer was tickled to see, he said, “Bruce, who lives just down the street, pull up in his huge bus and wave hello as he pulls into the artist parking lot just like he’d driven in from far away.”

Stretching the Envelope

My infatuation is based largely on his range as a man and as a musician. He insists on stretching the envelope musically. He’s never satisfied, and will not only work on continual reaching for the stars, but will also insist on experiment and exploration. He is open and widely cooperative and collaborative with a range of performers who bring a mix of race, gender, and background to his stages. He’s superbly talented and has written some of the most beautiful songs while also crafting some of the more challenging tunes you’ll hear on a more “popular” stage.

On top of that, he plays more than one instrument beautifully, owns a hometown radio station, acts in and writes songs for Broadway musicals, writes and performs with classical orchestras, including that of Michael Tilson Thomas recently, as well as performing with everyone from Greg Allman to Bob Dylan to the Grateful Dead to On and On, and doing it much to their satisfaction. The Dead have considered him their “Uncle Brucie,” he told me, for some thirty years now.

He speaks his mind and is damned funny, as evidenced by the repartee and give-and-take during his duo performance, forgetting the words at one point and telling one impatient fan  something to the effect that - tough, get over it, I’m doing this song and if you don’t want to wait for the words to come, you can just go somewhere else.  It struck me as very funny and appropriate as did other things he said in that casual setting,  an environment he made casual, as well as both challenging and fun.

Fun in the Funhouse

Also, let me do a snapshot of the other, incredible acts Bruce assembled under the white tents on the lawns of the Colonial Williamsburg Art Museum under the shared auspices of the Virginia Arts Festival and with the assistance of the greater community including Colonial Williamsburg, the City of Williamsburg, and numerous other entities from the region.

One was Lake Street Dive, led by the dynamic and beautiful Rachel Price, resplendent in a long white dress with slits on the sides, which, as Lois Hornsby chuckled to me, floated provocatively in the breeze away from her body, LSD gave their dynamic best to original songs and some covers. They are musical dynamos who never stop and swept the crowd into the heart of their music flowing intensely into the night.

The Staves are a trio of sisters, the Staveley-Taylors, who came from England to wow the crowd with marvelous harmonies and sumptuous songs. They were joined in my favorite of their sets with the dynamic and  challenging young band and choral group yMusic, who performed solo sets throughout the day in addition to combining with the Staves and in Bruce’s Dead set. At times, the combination broke my heart with its beauty.

Let me give you some idea of their unorthodox way with lyrics that might seem conventional on first listen (from their song, “Tired as Fuck”): (Close your eyes if you’re under age.)

Never had a prayer to swallow/I'll be coming home tomorrow
Never had a prayer to follow /I'll be coming home tomorrow
When I'm tired as fuck/Oh I'm tired as fuck/Nothing no-one ever can do to bring me back up/When I'm tired as fuck/Oh I'm tired as fuck/Dry my eyes on the back of my sleeve
Just wish me luck/Wish me luck

In case you’re wondering, “Tired as Fuck” t-shirts are now available on The Staves website, too bad Father’s Day is already passed.

Kenny Garrett is the jazzman’s jazzman, doing a rich variety and boppingly diverse geography of improvisational-ly rich jazz. He had a stunning band that matched him note for note. The set neared perfection in a searing and beautiful selection of songs. Lois Hornsby told me that she had the pleasure of knowing Garrett in that he is a long-time friend of son Bruce

Hiss Golden Messenger rocked out as usual. A band backed by intellect and an interest in the history of American song, leader M.C. Taylor teaches folklore and traditional music at the University of Carolina in lovely Durham, where Mipso’s LibbyRodenbough  took classes with him.

I missed the first night of the Fest. But, you can imagine. Headliner Sheryl Crow, I understand, did her usual fine night of vocals and rocking popular fun, with crowd favorites and some new treats. Bruce performed again, this time doing a collection of rock favorites of his own creation, with his band the Noisemakers. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra String Quartet added their internationally-renowned sounds to the mix as well.

Bruuuuuce!!

Funhouse Fest, named after Bruce’s song “Funhouse,” was a lot of fun. Most everyone was profuse from the stage with their praise of Bruce Hornsby for the work he’d done in putting together this phenomenal show, dripping with female talent in particular, and creating an environment where the performers felt welcomed and encouraged. Rhiannon didn’t specifically mention him, but did praise the festival and her audience highly, and I surmise she didn’t have as much direct contact with Hornby as many of the others had.

I had a tough time managing to make it to this Funfest Trip. I was largely motivated by wanting to experience what I felt was a rare opportunity to experience the musical tribute to Jerry that his close, long-time friend Bruce would be mounting. My wife worked all weekend, but, huge Rhiannon fan that she is along with my weekend-long urging, managed to make it for Giddens’ set, , for which  she was supremely grateful and rushed to the merch tent afterward for Rhiannon supplies and souvineers.

Hooray Bruce, Arts Festival, community, and diverse, enthusiastic audiences, “you done it!” Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next year!