The Hunt Family Fiddlers blew into town Sunday in a whirlwind of fiddling and footwork for a Community Concert at the Memorial Theater in Mount Vernon. The family, consisting of parents Clint and Sandy Hunt and their seven musical children who range in age from 11 to 20, play a fair amount of fiddle music, including traditional Celtic reels, Bluegrass tunes and some modern originals, as well as other instruments. And to top it all off, they are experts in Irish step dancing, with some of the boys in the family holding national and international rankings.
After an opening instrumental piece that lined out the parameters of the act, including such jaw-dropping stunts as playing the fiddle and step dancing at the same time, the band moved into the traditional number “Old Joe Clark” with a full complement of seven fiddles. The father usually played guitar throughout the concert, while Joshua played bass when he wasn’t fiddling, and Jonathan played keyboards. Jordan often played a full rock-style drum set during the show while Justin played beat box and Jamison played talking drum when they weren’t fiddling, dancing or singing. The two girls, twins Jessie and Jennie, stayed mostly on fiddle, with the occasional change to guitar. Plus, someone ended up with a mandolin in there at some point, too. Suffice it to say that the family’s corporate musical fluency is amazing.
The physical dexterity and precision displayed by the Hunts in the complicated Irish step dances they performed both in solos, pairs and groups was imposing. While the level of necessary talent involved is incredible, the amount of rehearsing (and performing) to get to that level of polish is almost frightening, fantastic though the dances sounded on the Memorial Theater’s wooden stage.
A glimpse of the loneliness of the life of a perpetually touring musician came in an evocative original number written by Jennie called “Friend,” addressed to a friend not seen in months due to the musician’s life on the road. It started soft and moody with just Jennie, supported by a few notes from her brother Jonathan. Gradually, the rest of the family appeared, instrument by instrument, fleshing out the song richly while at the same time implying the importance of the family group over individual concerns. I think it ended up saying even more than it was meant to.
More reserved was Jonathan’s instrumental “Crazy Fingers,” which provided a dark, cinematic groove for family jamming. Jessie followed with “Apple Tree,” which was a more country-flavored, feel-good song inviting audience clapping. “Hearts Held High” was another original, co-written by Jennie and Jonathan, reflecting each with soulful Celtic and aggressive rock sections. The words likened the family band to a proud ship sailing the waters of the world.
The first half of the show came to an end with “Old Copper Plate,” featuring some of the most powerful dancing of the evening, including a section done under strobe light. The second half was a little more disparate, featuring medleys of Bluegrass and traditional fiddle tunes. “The Arkansas Traveler” saw the ladies out traveling the aisles of the orchestra seats thanks to the band’s wireless pickups for their self-contained sound system, which was impressive, though the mix often seemed a touch murky without enough prominence given to the fiddles. The tune kept speeding up until it was zipping by like a well-oiled machine.
Some vaudevillian business included a fiddle line where the previous person in line played the following person’s instrument, as well as a section where young volunteers were brought on stage to guess the identity of tunes. Getting back to the music, a Brandi Carlile song, “The Story,” was played, followed by the best original of the night, Jenni’s lovely and moving song “Green Eyes.” A harmonized arrangement of “I’ll Fly Away” led to another impressive round of step dancing, including a section under black light, where the three oldest boys were all in black except for white ties, shoes and fluorescent-painted drumsticks they beat on the floor in intricate patterns. The closer was a rather smooth rendition of the Charlie Daniel’s classic “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” with most of the narration gutted and some of the featured fiddling lost in the general mix.
The talent and ferocious polish of the Hunt Family is impressive. Myself, I have a bit of a preference for fiddle tunes that still have a little burr, showing their folk roots, whereas the Hunts seem to have everything polished and varnished to the point that no variation is permitted. The show seemed redolent of their self-confessed roots played for three years at Busch Gardens: Everything is polished to within an inch of its life, and every person on stage seemed to have a choreographed movement every single moment of the show. But with such talent on display, more magic might happen if a little more spontaneity were allowed.