Opening Act: Performers enjoy being part of Virginia history

Jul. 12—At the first night of music in the recently restored theater, Bee had the Virginia buzzing.

Bee Taylor headlined a night of musical performances on Friday at the Virginia on East Mt. Vernon Street in Somerset, the first true scheduled event there following last month's open house to show the public the work that had been done by the City of Somerset on the former movie house.

Even those who didn't go in could tell that the Virginia was alive and hopping, with the brand-new vertical outside sign setting a glorious glow against the July night sky.

In its second life, the Virginia has effectively traded its cinema roots for a performance and event venue. This weekend featured a pair of concerts in the made-over theater space — Friday's featuring Taylor, with local opening acts Tommy Minton and Tiny Tiny, and Saturday's, featuring Lexington band MojoThunder and local openers Hunter Flynn and Cody Lee Meece & the Poor Excuses.

Minton had the distinction of being the first to do a set on the new stage in such an event, and was honored to be part of making history.

"I've been playing music around the Somerset area for quite a few years now and I've said countless times that I wish our town had a quality venue for music with a room that provided really good sound and acoustics," he said. "After the early afternoon sound check, I knew that this was going to be great!

"I consider it to be an honor and privilege to be a part of the line-up on opening night," added Minton. "To actually kick things off was extra special."

Taylor, likewise, was pleased to be on hand. Though she comes out of Nashville, Taylor has become a familiar face in Somerset, performing here numerous times and becoming a favorite with her raucous brand of soulful song-spinning.

"It's really beautiful that so much time and hard work has gone into this building," said Taylor. "From all the stories and pictures I've seen of what it was before, to see the beauty and the jewel that it is now, it's an honor to be here for the headlining show."

Taylor said she "always" enjoys coming back to play in Somerset when she has the opportunity.

"I think Somerset just feels like an adopted family," she said. "I feel just completely taken in by them and I just feel love and wonderfully held by everybody here."

Julie Harris, Communications Director for the City of Somerset, was asked by a reporter how the first night at the Virginia went. With a contented sigh, "great" was her description.

"That felt really magical in there, just to see all the people enjoying live music," she said. "Everything from the sound — the sound was fantastic — to behind the bar, everything was operating smoothly."

With only 250 tickets available each night, sales were over 90 percent, said Harris, who noted that the crowd itself was even bigger than that.

Harris observed that while people might not have been sure what to expect when they went in, the feedback she got was made of rave reviews for the new Virginia, "how cool the venue looks on the inside — it's just very industrial and really classy and pretty. I think a lot of people like that so much of the walls of the original building have been preserved. ... I overhead several people talk about the last time they were in the building, that's always a cool story to hear."

The vertical sign — placed in a yellow color scheme for the open house — was replaced just days before the concert, now black with blue lettering (although that's flexible) that pops. Harris said they're still planning to improve it still with a high-tech marquee.

"I think it's beautiful. Those letters can change color to any color," said Harris. "I'm excited to get the bottom part of that sign in so that we'll have the ability to put graphics on those LED screens and be able to promote shows that way, so that will be a cool addition once it gets here."

She added, "We just determined that black was going to be a better color (for the sign). ... It definitely goes with the interior work that had been done in the building."

The Virginia (its sign in green this time) was back in action on Saturday for a second show, featuring the high-energy rock act Mojothunder. It was a special homecoming for band member Bryson Willoughby, who lived in Somerset as a youth and attended Somerset Christian School. The guitarist moved on and helped create MojoThunder in 2018, but can recall his life here — including memories of the previously defunct Virginia itself. A post on MojoThunder's Facebook page from last week described the theater having "just enough space to peek through the boarded up windows to satisfy a young man's curiosity."

Saturday night, lounging upstairs in the new-look Virginia in the hours leading up to his taking the stage, Willoughby recalled those early days in Somerset, and noted that in returning to town for Master Musicians Festival last year, he barely recognized it — "We both grew up," he remarked.

"I was born and raised here; my dad came down and got a job at East Kentucky Power," said Willoughby. "I was here for my first 18 years, and then moved on to Lexington. ... It's really exciting to see that the city is taking a chance on art. If you go back to that time period, the want and the desire was there but no one (put forth) the effort. ... The city itself, I appreciate them taking a chance (with the Virginia)."