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Musician brings whimsy, creativity to First Fridays

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Billy Jonas is a Dr. Seuss of the musical world.

A few years ago, inspired by unbridled whimsy and Rube Goldberg creativity, he merged a marimba with 14-foot carpet tubing and made what he termed a maBOOMba.

It sounded like a tuba and a marimba — and became such a hit that leaders of a folk festival where he played it kept it for a while.

“I’m always making new things and trying them out,” Jonas said, speaking by phone while walking his mixed-breed dog, Beeka, at his home in Asheville, N.C.

The artist who has performed for groups as small as 40 for house concerts and as large as 40,000 at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, brings his inventive music to a free Old National Bank First Fridays for Families concert at 6 p.m. Feb. 7 at The Commons, 300 Washington St., in Columbus.

The guitarist and percussionist has been known to play various drums, for sure. But also buckets and barrels, keys and cans, bells and bodies.

Suffice it to say that, onstage, he’s got the beat, any way you measure it.

“A lot of the kids tell me they’re inspired by all the found objects I play,” Jonas said.

The musician who has been influenced by artists ranging from Joni Mitchell to Igor Stravinsky calls his music funky folk. With his band, including a marimba player and bassist, the music often veers close to pop, calypso and world music.

“Almost every kind of music probably has folk as its base,” he said. “Other styles are simply what I use to dress it up.”

He once was a serious classical music student who felt limited by the genre.

“But then I had an epiphany and realized that folk music encompasses everything,” he said. “I was looking for a way to be as free as possible.”

Tami Sharp, program director for the Columbus Area Arts Council, first booked him in 2000 and again in 2008 at the original Commons. She expects 350 to 400 people for the show.

“He already has quite a following here,” Sharp said. “His energy onstage is incredible.”

He moves, grooves, whacks and smacks — not only for entertainment, but a bit of education as well.

Sharp’s own kids, now grown, still remember some of his songs from years ago.

“When they start singing something, then I remember (too),” Sharp said with a laugh.

His tunes touch on topics from the Mount St. Helen’s volcano to God’s presence in nearly everything and among nearly every faith imaginable. In fact, “God Is There” includes the lighthearted line, “God is in the microwave/unless you try to use something metal/Then the microwave is the devil.”

Sharp believes Jonas’ memorable hooks and catchy lyrics such as “What Kind of Cat Am I?” help him connect with audiences.

“The funniest thing is that when some adults approach me these days, it’s to tell me that they still remember lyrics to a song we made up together 20 years ago on the spot during a concert,” Jonas said. “It’s pretty amazing.

“But when we make up a song together, they feel a sense of ownership. And they’re totally invested in the process.”

In his 25 years of performing, Jonas has acquired his share of admirers. One is bluegrass music veteran Alison Krauss.

“Billy Jonas’ talent, wit and obvious love for children and learning make him and his music irresistible,” Kraus has said. “Whenever I see him perform, my face hurts from smiling.”

Jonas feels the same way about his audiences at concerts.

“The audience is like a battery,” he said. “Once onstage, I’m tapped into that power source. You learn to utilize that loop of energy.”

All things considered, hardly a humdrum approach to music.

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