The music of Bruce Hornsby, who plays with his band The Noisemakers at the Pavilion this week, is undergoing something of a resurgence of interest thanks in no small part to critically lionized songwriter Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver. Vernon’s self-titled new album borrows a couple of tricks from early in Hornsby’s career—glistening piano work, throaty vocals, throbbing percussion—and has critics speculating whether we’re in for the resurgence of “dad music.”
If so, Hornsby might be a good candidate to lead the movement—again. In his 20s he and his band The Range won a Grammy for Best New Artist and had America’s most-played single in 1987, “The Way it Is.” You may know the song—and if you don’t, you probably do know 2Pac’s “Changes,” which samples it. (“That’s just the way it iii-is.”)
But by the time the cycle whereby the uncool becomes cool again graces Hornsby’s early work, he will have completed a long-coming transition. The songwriter and pianist is hedging his bets on what he says some fans call the “other stuff”: drawn-out jams with The Noisemakers that draw on his signature style, but also on jazz, gospel, folk and jam band traditions.
“A lot of times we had the sort of golf shirt and lime green pants stockbroker crowd who’s there to stroll down memory lane,” says Hornsby. “That’s not really what we do.”
Hornsby and The Noisemakers, who he’s played with for more than a decade, took 2010 off from touring to make that transition in the minds of fans, “seeking out an audience that was more willing to receive what our band does,” he says. “Our band is a very freewheeling entity.”
That transition meant inking a management deal with Coran Capshaw’s Red Light Management, through which the band has been booked at a variety of festivals, including Bonnaroo and Summer Camp.
Listen to Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers’ new disc, Bride of the Noisemakers (a double-album, which feels nostalgic in a way) and you’ll hear that the band is not a nostalgia act—not at least, for the early work of Bruce Hornsby. In recent years a big fan of classical music, Hornsby has been known to incorporate pieces of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in his long, improvised solos. On the disc, which is a collection of live recordings from 2007-2009, a version of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” bursts into a plinking, ride-heavy scat jam reminiscent of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, who share the bill with Hornsby this week.
“It’s more about musical exploration and sort of the pursuit of ecstatic moments and the joyful noise, rather than, here’s the songs from your youth,” he says.
Aside from the 10 years he spent living in Los Angeles—his own “me decade,” he called it, borrowing from Tom Wolfe—Hornsby is a lifelong Virginia resident with deep local roots. “I was doing something for me: trying to make it, quote-unquote, in the music business. I was one of the fortunate ones. I got what I wanted, then got the hell out and went back to Williamsburg,” his hometown.
His brother John Hornsby founded, with other local musicians, the Music Resource Center. His nephew, the late guitarist R.S. Hornsby, joined the band at regional shows before his death, in a 2009 car crash, at age 28. “If he was around, he would certainly be playing with us in Charlottesville and Portsmouth and Wolf Trap and Asheville and all over,” he says.
During the ’70s, Hornsby played around Charlottesville with a group called Bobby High Test and the Octane Kids, mostly a Grateful Dead cover group fronted by his brother Bobby. Hornsby would later shock his bandmates, following a successful career as a hitmaker, by going on to join the Dead for more than 100 shows in the early ’90s.
All this puts Hornsby’s transition in perspective. “I’ve always had one foot in that world,” he says of the festival circuit. “I played with the archetypal band in that world: The Grateful Dead.”
“I guess you can say I painted myself into the mural I was looking at all those years,” he says.
Give it up
Taking a break from touring in 2011, are you Dave Matthews? My foot.
Announced through the Dave Matthews Band website last week: Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds will play a charity gig at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion on August 20, the duo’s first show in town since 1994.
General public tickets go on sale beginning at 10am on Friday, August 5, at the DMB website. If you’re a member of the Warehouse fanclub, a ticket request period for the show opens at 10am on Friday, July 29, and ends at noon on Wednesday, August 3.
After the Dave and Tim show, Warren Haynes Band—featuring Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule and The Dead—plays at the Jefferson. Both are charity shows run through JustGive.org, which allows concertgoers to direct the cost of their ticket to a charity of their choice. At a pair of December concerts in Seattle, Matthews and Reynolds raised $1 million for various charities, according to JustGive.