VPAC Scoop: Digging deeper on Bruce Hornsby (performing at Beaver Creek July 3)
Editor’s note: From time to time, members of the Vilar Performing Arts Center community will provide insights into upcoming art, music and dance performances at the 535-seat theater in Beaver Creek Village. This week, the Vail Valley Foundation’s Jed Gottleib previews the Monday Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers show.
There are a dozen guitarists people can identify instantly. After a few notes, most music fans can recognize the distinct sound of B.B. King and Carlos Santana, Eddie Van Halen and the Edge. You can’t say the same thing about piano players. Without all those guitar pedals and amplifier effects, pianists have trouble standing out the same way. But that’s never been a problem for Bruce Hornsby.
The iconic run of notes that open Hornsby’s hit “The Way It Is” is immediately recognizable. The same goes of his other smashes “The Valley Road” and “The Mandolin Rain.” You can hear his distinctive tone and technique on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and his improvisational chops on Bela Fleck’s “Tales from the Acoustic Planet.” And, of course, Deadheads know him as a frequent guest at shows and close musical compatriot of Jerry Garcia.
Hornsby will bring his unique piano style and impressive catalog of songs back to the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek on Monday at 6:30 p.m. (an early show because why mess with the spectacular Avon fireworks; this way, no one will have to choose).
Hornsby hit the scene in the mid-’80s leading his first band, The Range. He quickly became a staple on Top 40 radio with his melodic, smart rock ‘n’ roll. The day’s biggest stars recruited him to help them write pop gems — Hornsby penned Huey Lewis & the News’ No. 1 “Jacob’s Ladder” and co-wrote and co-produced Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence.” But he also never felt completely comfortable in the pop world. Hornsby grew up part-Deadhead and part-jazz nerd, he studied music seriously but could also play with loose, rootsy feel.
A bit of everything
All of this gets put on display when he tours with his current band, the Noisemakers — a ragtag band of players that can do rock, jazz, folk and traditional tunes while having no reservations about getting into glorious, wild jams. It’s no surprise Hornsby was a favorite guest of the Grateful Dead. Hornsby sat in more than a hundred times at Dead shows between 1988 (June 25, 1988, Buckeye Lake Music Center, Hebron, Ohio, if you’re keeping track) and Garcia’s death in 1995.
When the Dead’s core four of guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart decided to formally say goodbye during their 50th anniversary, they enlisted Hornsby to help out. The band’s The Fare Thee Well events became a phenomenon. With Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio standing in for Garcia, the group tallied $52 million in box office sales in five stadium shows. The final three shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 3, 4 and 5 became the biggest music pay-per-view event of all time with more than 400,000 cable, satellite subscriptions and online streams.
The box office receipts and record breaking were great. But Hornsby was happy the band’s massive cult enjoyed the shows. He said following the event he felt the performances were pretty darn good for a group that learned 90 different songs to play five gigs. The players put in weeks of rehearsals to get it right — so much time that Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart decided to continue on as Dead & Company with John Mayer. But for Hornsby the long, strange trip may have ended in 2015 (he has said he’ll never rule out jamming with Dead alums, but has no plans to do so soon). But how about with Anastasio? If the timing worked out, then he would be interested.
“If Trey has some big idea and calls me up — I’m all ears,” Hornsby said after his time with the Phish leader. “I loved the time with him and would definitely be interested in exploring something else.”
That’s the kind of musician Hornsby is: He’s always up to experiment with talented cohorts. He has recorded an ace jazz album with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette. With mandolin master Ricky Skaggs, he made an LP rearranging his catalog as bluegrass tunes. (Yes, they did “Mandolin Rain,” and Rick James’ “Super Freak,” too.)
So what will he play at the VPAC? You can bet on bit of everything. At a recent show he jumped from the Grateful Dead’s “Brown-Eyed Woman” to Jackson Browne’s “I’m Alive” to “The End of the Innocence.”