Hylton on the Hill: Where the Music Plays On

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By Carla Christiano

A carpet of grass stretches between two parking lots, up a slight hill — a natural amphitheater of sorts. Red and yellow circles marked on the grass denote accessible or reserved seating and general seating, ensuring COVID-19 social distancing. Within each circle, concert goers sit on collapsible canvas chairs brought from home, munch homemade snacks or Thai food from Mum-Mum, the concert vendor, while listening to the band on the stage up front. An occasional plane flies overhead enroute to Manassas Airport a few miles away. Welcome to Hylton on the Hill.

Discovering Hylton on the Hill

Started in early fall of 2020, Hylton on the Hill offers outdoor concerts from a range of artists — Celtic to blues, Mexilachian (a combination of Mexican and Appalachian music) to bluegrass and pop. Located behind the Hylton Performing Arts Center at the Manassas campus of George Mason University, Hylton on the Hill performances take place on a once unused open lot that is slated to become a road someday.

“Hylton on the Hill is an informal, fun, social concert venue that we discovered not accidentally, but improvisationally, at the height of the pandemic when we just couldn’t face not being together and not presenting artists,” said Rick Davis, Dean of George Mason University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and Executive Director of the Hylton Center.

After several months of cancelled performances due to the pandemic-caused lockdown, Davis and staff didn’t know when they would be back having live, in-the-theater performances. Yet, they wanted to do something. In their discussions, they had two objectives: “bringing people together for the sake of the community, for the sake of the audience, but also to keep the artistic community functioning. All these artists when the world closed down in March and April [2020] lost income, lost opportunity. We wanted to do whatever we could do to be part of their sustainability,” said Davis.

One solution was right outside their door.

Continuing a Good Thing

The idea of having outdoor concerts is not new to the Hylton Center. They have hosted Arts Alive, a day-long celebration of the arts for 10 years, as well as other festivals and an occasional bluegrass weekend. “We knew that people loved being outdoors and loved hearing music outdoors. It’s not a brand-new idea, but what is new was looking out the back of the theater and realizing we had a natural spot that was the right size, the right space. It even had that gentle slope. That’s how Hylton on the Hill came to be,” said Davis.

What began as an improvisation that Davis still sees as “a grand experiment,” Hylton on the Hill is still being refined, even as it succeeds. “It has met or exceeded our expectations. We’ve had a really great response,” said Davis.

Depending on the act performing and the weather conditions, Hylton on the Hill concerts have had up to 150 attendees, similar to what the Gregory Family Theater would draw, which often hosts similar bands in their American Roots series.

Unlike in-theater performances, Hylton on the Hill concerts are still weather dependent, which has caused some adjustments. One recent show moved indoors, and a cancellation from cold and rain for a 2020 performance of the band Ranky Tanky, which Davis called “a really great Grammy winning ensemble from South Carolina,” led to a taping on the Hylton stage and a virtual performance in 2021.

Another band, the Bumper Jacksons, a D.C. area-based Americana/folk ensemble, is scheduled to perform at Hylton on the Hill on Sept. 19. They were originally booked pre-pandemic in the Gregory Family Theater for the Roots series, but when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the live performance, they became the first Hylton at Home livestream. The band even recorded the concert themselves. “They did a great concert. I’m really glad to be bringing them back for real now. They’re a great band. They are real troopers,” said Davis.

The Bumper Jacksons are also looking forward to their upcoming performance. “We love doing outdoor shows … so much of the folk music we draw from was meant for outdoor spaces, so it feels really natural. Also, considering the circumstances we all just suffered through, this show is really going to be a celebration of life and collective resilience for us, and I imagine it will be the same for everyone that comes!” stated Chris Ousley of the band.

Local award-winning Bumper Jacksons play at Hylton on the Hill on Sept. 19, 2021.

Coming Together to Show Support

Despite the 90-degree heat for a June concert, approximately 85 patrons showed their support for Hylton on the Hill. Some came armed with umbrellas to ward off the sun at the 4 p.m. show. One attendee, Vanessa Gattis of Woodbridge, who attended with her husband, said she is a Hylton subscriber and thought it was important to support the Hylton, the arts and other non-profits. She had never attended a Hylton on the Hill performance before. “I saw it and thought it was a great place to hear some music,” she said.

Another couple, Joyce and Tom Andrew of Bristow, friends of the Hylton and volunteers, also wanted to support the Hylton by attending the outdoor concert. “It’s something to do. We’ve really missed it so much,” said Joyce.

“Every single time we’ve had a performance, the artists are so grateful for the work, but even more for the emotional connection with the audience. It’s what they live for. It never hurts to remind audiences that they are part of the show. They are part of the success of the event,” said Davis.

For information about Hylton on the Hill including upcoming performance dates and to purchase tickets, go to hyltoncenter.org/ticketsevents/outdoor-performances.

The Grascals, a GRAMMY nominated bluegrass band from Nashville,
Tennessee, perform at Hylton on the Hill on Sept. 26, 2021.

Carla Christiano (cchristiano@princewilliamliving.com) is a native of Prince William, admitted history geek and a technical writer for SAIC.


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