Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers | 11.19.09

hornsby2.jpgAside from being a truly gifted musician, Hornsby seems like a laid-back, affable guy, cracking jokes and engaging in easy banter with the audience between songs.

 

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Photos: Amy Burger

 The Pageant, St. Louis

A lot of people remember Bruce Hornsby as that guy who had a string of big hits on contemporary radio in the 80s that you might still hear versions of while standing in an elevator (Mandolin Rain anyone?). But what many don’t realize is that Hornsby is one of the most versatile and talented musicians playing today – and one who’s vast body of work includes forays into jazz, bluegrass, folk and classical as well as pop and rock. He even did a stint in the early 90s as a fill-in keyboardist for the Grateful Dead after the untimely passing of Brent Mydland, playing more than 100 shows with the band and developing a new legion of fans in the Deadheads.

I’ve seen Hornsby about six or seven times now in various incarnations and one thing is for certain, he never ever disappoints. Last year’s stop at the Touhill Center with bluegrass/country legend Ricky Skaggs was a rare and unusual treat. This year, he returned with his long-time band The Noisemakers (yes, he ditched The Range in the early 90s) for an intimate evening at The Pageant.

As seems to be the trend this year, downturned economy and all, the Pageant was less than capacity for Hornsby’s show Friday night; although the crowd that did turn out was enthusiastic and welcoming. The show was reserved seating, even on the main level, which is unusual for the venue and gave it a cabaret type feel.

Although he is a multi-instrumentalist, Hornsby is most comfortable at the keys of his grand piano, and his mad skills were on full display for a nearly two-hour set featuring a mix of new and old "requests" from the audience, starting with fan favorite "White-Wheeled Limousine" from his second solo album, Hot House, leading into country classic "Long Black Veil."

hornsby3.jpgAside from being a truly gifted musician, Hornsby seems like a laid-back, affable guy – a cool cat – cracking jokes and engaging in easy banter with the audience between songs. As a prelude to his classic "End of the Innocence" (recorded and made popular by The Eagles’ Don Henley), he told the story of sitting at the Grammys as the song lost in both Record of the Year and Song of the Year categories.

"My wife was sitting next to Sting, and he was leaning on her the whole time, so that’s all she could think about," he joked. He then played the opening piano riffs to the song, singing "Two time loser."

Hornsby played a few select gems from his new album, Levitate, including "In the Low Country" and the twangy, upbeat "Prairie Dog Town" (on the Dulcimer). During the encore, he played an intense version of the album’s standout single, "Cyclone," a collaboration with Robert Hunter, long-time lyricist for the Grateful Dead.

Deadheads in the audience (present company included) got another treat with the catchy, dancy "Sunflower Cat" from 2004’s Spirit Trail, which samples Jerry Garcia’s guitar riff from "Chinacat Sunflower," more than aptly played by Noisemakers guitarist Doug Derryberry. In fact, the entire band went into a full-on Grateful Dead-style jam during the tune, leading as they typically do live into Bob Dylan’s "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry."

Deadheads also cheered for "Tango King," another upbeat piano tune from Hot House that "borrows" the chorus riff from the Dead’s "Estimated Prophet." Hornsby hunkered down over the keys for this one, really letting them rip and proving once again his musical chops.

He took to the accordion for the bluesy "Defenders of the Flag" from Scenes from the South Side, his second album with The Range, and "Barcelona Mona," an instrumental he penned with longtime collaborator Branford Marsalis for the 1992 Olympic Games.

The Noisemakers are a terrific band, creating a rich, full sound to back Hornsby’s piano and smooth vocals. Bobby Read’s saxophone and flute give a heavy dose of jazz to the mix, bassist JV Collier keeps things funky while drummer Sonny Emory keeps time, and keyboardist/organist J.T. Thomas rounds out Hornsby’s sound on the ivories.

Hornsby’s set truly spanned his career, touching on each "era" from The Range to his early solo work, his days with the Dead and recent albums. My favorite of his solo works is Spirit Trail, so I was particularly pleased to hear cuts from that record including a slowed down version of "Shadow Hand" on the Dulcimer and "Pete & Manny."

Old-school fans were treated to new interpretations of his classics "The Way it Is" (the lyrics to which seem even more apropos in 2009) and show-closer "Valley Road," which brought the crowd to its feet as they screamed "Bruuuuuuuuuucce!"

Bruce Hornsby is one of those artists you simply cannot judge based on the "popular" songs you have heard on the radio. His live performances are some of the most engaging and musically astute of anyone I’ve seen. I still remember the first time I saw him perform with the Grateful Dead, at Madison Square Garden in 1991. I thought "Bruce Hornsby? Really?"  Ever since he’s been proving to me why he deserves a place among the most legendary musicians of his time. | Amy Burger

 

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