Review: The many satisfying turns of Bruce Hornsby
December 7, 2009
ASPEN – You need to keep your eye on Bruce Hornsby. Though he comes off as mellow, even timid, you know never what he might do next.
Hornsby is a radio pop star one year, then a quasi-member of the Grateful Dead.
He’ll take a familiar song of his and turn it into a blues number, or make it a platform to demonstrate his considerable skill on unaccompanied piano.
In 2007, Hornsby released two albums: a straightahead jazz recording in a piano trio setting, and a duo bluegrass album with Ricky Skaggs.
Now he seems determined to become even more unpredictable: He has an odd featured role in the even odder Robin Williams movie “World’s Greatest Dad,” and there are reports that he is writing music for a Broadway-bound show, “SCKBSTD.”
Saturday night at Belly Up Aspen, in his first local public appearance in a decade, Hornsby seemed to recognize that he needed to be watched. Hornsby, at a Steinway baby grand, was far to one side of the stage; the five members of his current band, the Noise Makers, were arrayed in a semi-circle around him, the better to keep their leader in their sights. Bassist J.V. Collier, in particular, seemed never to take his eye off Hornsby, and the result was a thick but flexible groove throughout the two-hour set. With the band more focused on interacting with Hornsby, rather than playing to the audience, its members navigated each unexpected twist.
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The show took as many satisfying turns as Hornsby’s career. After opening the show with some flourishes of classical, solo piano music, the band joined in for Hornsby’s “Gonna Be Some Changes Made,” whose title could well serve as his mantra.
One song early in the set transformed into a segment of the Grateful Dead’s “He’s Gone.” Not one to remain in one position all night long, Hornsby moved center-stage and picked up a dulcimer for a raucous, rap-influenced version of “Prairie Dog Town,” from his new album, “Levitate.” Later he strapped on an accordion to give a combination zydeco/bluegrass feel to his old hit, “Valley Road,” and in the middle, he sandwiched in a short take on the ’50s novelty song, “Willie and the Hand Jive.”
Two of the night’s highlights were songs written by Hornsby that became hits for other singers: “Jacob’s Ladder” (made popular by Huey Lewis) and the sad but beautifully melodic “The End of the Innocence” (Don Henley).
For an encore, Hornsby returned with the energetic “Sunflower Cat (Some Dour Cat) (Down With That),” a song that starts with a Jerry Garcia guitar riff, and becomes hard-driving funk with bits of hip-hop and the uplifting message, “In my dreams I can fly, fly high.”
All of Hornsby’s various modes came off as natural, with an easy flow to the way he switched gears. Kudos to his outstanding band for keeping pace with him. And credit Hornsby for knowing where their focus should be.