It’s not every week — or every decade — that a glorious new concert venue opens just up the road, or that the venue features a performer whose music you’ve been drumming along to for upwards of 30 years.
But that’s what happened on Tuesday when Bruce Hornsby played the new Vina Robles Amphitheatre.
If you don’t know who Bruce Hornsby is, you’re missing out, as you also will be if you don’t find a chance in the coming summer months to catch a show at this gem of a location, which just opened its inaugural season.
I’ve been a fan of the singer-songwriter-pianist since he and his band first busted out with “The Way It Is” in 1986, earning the Grammy for Best New Artist.
And he’s become a bit of an inspiration for Mr. Big Fifth-Grader, who’s developing some rather nifty improvisational skills of his own tickling the ivories.
So when I saw that Hornsby would be performing on a warm July night in the second concert ever at Vina Robles, I snapped up our tickets the first day they were available.
Both the artist and the venue lived up to my best expectations.
Carved into a bowl facing east, the amphitheater is beautifully designed with lots of open spaces and various ticketing levels from stage-front seats to a comfortable, gently sloping lawn.
Above the seating area is an expansive plaza space for food and beverage sales. It offers a few nice features including an area of patio-style couches where guests can relax between sets or before the show and a line of tall tables where patrons can eat with a view overlooking the whole amphitheater below.
As the sun set behind us, we listened to the opening act spread out on blankets at the front of the lawn area, but when Hornsby came on, we took advantage of the light attendance (the amphitheater seemed less than half full) and moved around a bit to get a feel for the place.
We found the best vantage in the permanent tan-colored middle tier of seats, which arch up around the movable top-price blue seats near the stage. They offer a great view, and the sound was phenomenal, bright piano and vocals soaring clearly over a crisp but booming rhythm section.
In front of the first row is enough room for fans to dance and take pictures of the performers, which makes for an intimate concert-going experience.
Taking it all in, Mr. Big Fifth-Grader was clearly impressed. Every time I glanced over at him, a big grin spread across his face.
But the most truly memorable moment came about two-thirds through, when Hornsby, who hasn’t visited the county since a concert at the Mid-State Fair in 1990, launched into his oldest hit because, “It’s been awhile.”
The song came after a quiet part of the concert, and the near-stage area was clear.
Recognizing an opportunity, I told the 10-year-old and his sister to move, and we quickly slipped down the aisle right up to the front, grabbing a spot at the lip of the stage not 10 feet from Hornsby and his piano.
Immediately, we were surrounded by a crowd four rows deep, and there we stayed for 20 minutes in the middle of sound and motion, as the band jammed through a couple long and creative numbers, added an encore and finally saluted the audience for the night.
If you want to inspire a young pianist, does it get any better than setting the kid up at the feet of a virtuoso as he spins off intricate solos before a cheering crowd?
Yes, it does … when that artist, in the middle of it all and literally without skipping a beat, looks right down at him and smiles.
All I can say is, wow. Mr. Big Fifth-Grader? I think he agrees.
We got home just shy of midnight, still riding a musical high. He walked in the door, and where did he go?
Right to the piano.
Joe Tarica is the presentation editor for The Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @joetarica.
If You Want to Go:
We had a memorable experience in our first visit to the Vina Robles Amphitheatre, but it can be a pricey night out.
First off, the tickets aren’t cheap, which I guess is to be expected from a location of this quality attracting acts of this level.
Our show was actually one of the most affordable on the initial lineup. We nabbed lawn seating for $35 a person. Sammy Hagar tickets start at $61 and run up to $131.
Our initial ticket price also didn’t include a few extra charges: $11.50 a piece for a “convenience” fee and $3.50 each for parking.
I asked Simone Michel, director of customer relations and marketing at Vina Robles, about those fees, and she explained that the parking tab ensures no money needs to be collected at the site, which is important because it’s located just off Highway 46 and makes traffic management easier and safer.
Vina Robles is also partnering with SLO Safe Ride and the Wine Wrangler, who will offer shuttle service to and from shows. If you take that option, Vina Robles will give each ticket-holder a $3 discount for food or drinks as reimbursement for the parking fee.
As for the other fee, she said it includes the “convenience” cost for booking via the website, as well as credit-card and mailing fees.
Except that I printed out the tickets myself. Oh well. The money goes toward covering labor, equipment, maintenance and other facility costs.
To avoid the “convenience fee,” you can buy tickets for any concert at the box office on show nights from two hours before the start through intermission. Michel said also that in the near future, tickets will be offered for sale on non-show days at the winery’s hospitality center.
Food and beverages at the amphitheater are pricey as well, but no different than what you’d pay at other prime concert venues or sporting events.
Except for sealed bottled water, no outside food or drinks are allowed, so don’t plan on bringing your own picnic basket.
I got a sausage sandwich with peppers and onions for $9, and the French fries will set you back 6 bucks. A glass of beer or wine was around $8. Little Miss Eighth-Grader hit me up for a $4 cookie.
Big spenders might also be enticed by the Vina Robles restaurant, which offers a multi-course prix-fixe menu prepared by the winery chef, served on the Petite Terrace or in the Signature Room.
For more information about the Vina Robles Amphitheatre and its shows, visit vinaroblesamphitheatre.com.