Musical Chameleon

Bruce Hornsby makes ever-evolving noise

Bruce Hornsby: “Locals can expect a loose, spontaneous concert that involves an attempt at deep musicianship, with a few laughs thrown in for emotional balance.”
Bruce Hornsby: “Locals can expect a loose, spontaneous concert that involves an attempt at deep musicianship, with a few laughs thrown in for emotional balance.”

Virginia piano man Bruce Hornsby has had at least three careers. His '80s band The Range scored arguably his most iconic hit with "The Way It Is," a song that, on the surface, sounds middle of the road, but a closer inspection reveals lyrics that detail homelessness, the civil rights movement and racism.

He's also recorded a Grammy-winning bluegrass album with Ricky Skaggs, under his own name, with the Noisemakers, and famously was a member of the Grateful Dead. On one hand, Hornsby is a musician's musician—a master of his instrument and a lover of jam/picking sessions. His expertise in bluegrass and the Dead-esque jam scene attests to that. On the other, he's always been not only capable of but partial to writing the most infectious of melodies.

"The Way It Is" is the perfect example; instantly accessible soft rock, with the added bonus of meaningful lyrics. But the song doesn't seem to have anything to do with the Grateful Dead's by-design rock 'n' roll ramble. Similarly, 2007's Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby bluegrass album, and the Bruce Hornsby Trio jazz album, Camp Meeting, that same year, highlight just how wildly eclectic Hornsby's talents are.

This week, he'll be here in Tucson, a stop on his solo piano tour. It should be a fascinating and exciting night; Hornsby says that his music has continued to evolve during the 32 years since his first record.

"I had my jazz period in the early-mid '90s, using more of the jazz harmonic language in my songwriting," Hornsby says. "Then I moved to more of an Americana place featuring the pianistic two-handed independence I had been developing in the mid-late '90s and early 2000s, then took a crazy detour into what could be categorized as 'electronica blues' on 2002's Big Swing Face. Then moved into a bluegrass mode with Ricky Skaggs from 2007-13, and went way more deeply into the jazz thing with my 2007 trio record with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette. Then started incorporating more dissonance and modern classical music techniques and harmonic language in my songwriting from 2009 until the present day, went back to a folkier style with our dulcimer record of 2016, Rehab Reunion, and on and on."

Hornsby played with the Dead between 1988 and '95 when Jerry Garcia passed away. But the legacy of the Dead endures, and Deadheads will often show up in force for Hornsby gigs to this day, thanks to his link to their beloved group. He's part of that family, whether he likes it or not. As it happens, he's been known to state that he does indeed like it, because he views those fans as particularly adventurous music aficionados.

As far as Hornsby is concerned, he loved working with that band, and others, but he enjoys the freedom that comes with a solo career.

"I love collaboration, as should be obvious to anyone who has followed my idiosyncratic journey," he says. "But I love most playing with my band, and playing solo piano concerts like the one I'm playing in Tucson. I love the total freedom available."

Hornsby and the Noisemakers released Rehab Reunion, their fourth studio album (sixth in total), in 2016. The record, essentially a folk rock album, is unusual because Hornsby doesn't play piano on it at all. Rather, he can be heard plucking a dulcimer. Guests such as Justin Vervon of Bon Iver and Mavis Staples pop up to great effect, while the permanent Noisemakers dazzle (Hornsby knows to assemble a killer group). Notably, Hornsby's songwriting is phenomenal, and tunes such as "Over the Rise" and "The Valley Road" are some of his best in recent years. There should, he says, be a new one soon.

"Yes, a new album will come out in the first few months of next year, featuring some amazing, fantastic guests," Hornsby says.

The show at the Fox on Friday is billed as "An Evening With Bruce Hornsby," suggesting something more intimate and perhaps all-round entertaining than a regular concert—music, banter, jokes, witty and poignant anecdotes. It's all consistent with the special relationship Hornsby has long had with his fanbase.

"Locals can expect a loose, spontaneous concert that involves an attempt at deep musicianship, with a few laughs thrown in for emotional balance," he says.

So here we are in 2018, and "The Way It Is" could have been written yesterday. Arguably, under the Trump administration and in the current social and political climate, the lyrics are more important and relevant than they ever were. Hornsby, a remarkably astute man, knows this.

The man once said, "While housing discrimination and segregation in 2005 still affect millions of people, that's not the way it has to be. Some things can change and should." He was right 13 years ago, and it still stands true today. He also said that, when he wrote that song, he was trying to move people to take a stand on civil rights in the United States. Again, that sentiment, that call to arms, couldn't be more appropriate today.

That said, he also admits that, like a Bob Dylan, when he plays old favorites, he allows the songs to evolve to the point that they may not be instantly recognizable. That's one sign of a true artist—somebody who won't allow themselves to rest on their laurels, to stagnate. And those same rules apply to the songs.

This can lead to frustration among some fans, the sort that likes to hear songs played live the way they know them, the way they're recorded on the album. But Hornsby's crowd, particularly the Deadheads, are more open-minded to the fluidity, and the joys that can bring. And suddenly, it all makes sense—the various ducks and dives that the man has enjoyed throughout his career. Everything has been for a reason. And there's more new music to come at the end of this year going into 2019.

"The aforementioned new record," he predicts. "And my score for Season 2 Of Spike Lee's Netflix series She's Gotta Have It."

Bring it on, sir.

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