With the release of his new live album, Bride of the Noisemakers, Virginian Bruce Hornsby celebrates his 25th anniversary of his recording breakthrough. It is hard to believe that it was 1986 when his song "The Way It Is" dominated the radio dial and the album that shared that song's name spawned two other classic singles ("Mandolin Rain" "Every Little Kiss"). Hornsby's talents were instantly recognized by well-established musicians of that era, so his longevity as an active musical force was never in doubt.
The surprising thing about Hornsby's career, looking back on its beginning in 1986, has been its sense of adventure. Both of his first two albums created a sound and style that was instantly recognizable and appealing to radio. His soft jazz piano mixed with catchy melodies and southern story-songs connected immediately to a wide audience. However, Hornsby's path would soon be inspired by Neil Young who famously explained that after "Heart Of Gold" put him "in the middle of the road... [t]ravelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch." Hornsby might not have headed for the ditch, but he sure decided to take some alternate routes.
Starting with his third album A Night On The Town, he brought a live band approach to the recording process. Although each of his first three albums were credited to Bruce Hornsby and the Range, the reality was that most of his first two albums were recorded by Hornsby alone. A Night On The Town changed that providing a much more muscular, "full band" sound and also displaying Hornsby's deeper influences like jazz (guests included Wayne Shorter and Bela Fleck), the Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia guested as well) and the rollicking piano sounds of 70s era Leon Russell. This album might not have sold as well as The Way It Is, but it provided Hornsby a detailed map to where his career was headed.
The Range disbanded after A Night On The Town, and Hornby began to release a series of albums under his name alone - Harbor Lights, Hot House, and Spirit Trail. The cover image of Hot House, which featured an artistic rendering of Bill Monroe jamming with Charlie Parker, summed these albums up. Hornsby had established himself as a uniquely Southern artist who sought to combine varied musical traditions while still staying within the context of first rate story-songs. Hornsby further branched out during this period by producing a Leon Russell album and touring with the Grateful Dead. Both endeavors allowed him to connect directly with the artists that influenced him.
After this series of albums, the fractal nature of Hornsby's career became even more prominent. As he hit the decade following the year 2000, Hornsby released a double live album with his touring ensemble (the Noisemakers), released adventurous studio albums (Big Swing Face, Levitate), released both a radio-centric greatest hits and a 4 disc box set (Intersections) commemorating his 20 year mark as an artist, and recorded two side projects - a jazz trio record with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette (Camp Meeting) and a bluegrass record with Ricky Skaggs.
Needless to say, Hornsby has covered a lot of ground in the past decade giving context to his latest live album, Bride Of The Noisemakers. Although it has become commonplace for strong touring artists to frequently (or perhaps too frequently) release live albums, this latest by Hornsby serves an important purpose in the same way Here Come The Noisemakers did in 1990 as it focused on the Noisemakers re-interpeting some of Hornsby's biggest hits. Hornsby explains "I think of my songs as living beings that evolve and change and grow through the years."
Bride Of The Noisemakers takes an even more challenging route as it eschews all of Hornsby's "hits" in favor of drawing equally from his trio of 90s studio releases and the studio trio of this past decade. The most recent trio - Big Swing Face, Halcyon Days, and Levitate - provide some of the most interesting moments since those albums were studio-dependent creations. 2002's Big Swing Face featured funky synth sounds and none of Hornsby's trademark piano. 2004's Halycon Days delivered a plethora of superstar guests (Sting, Eric Clapton, Elton John) and mixed different Hornsby style eras. By 2009's Levitate, Hornsby again experimented by splitting the difference between Big Swing Face's synths and his other piano-driven jazzier recordings.
On Bride Of The Noisemakers Hornsby gets a chance to re-present many of the songs from these albums in a style closer to his 90s recordings. The Noisemakers are a tight, sinewy band of players, and this album provides an intimate, club-like sound. These live versions of his recent studio songs reveal their underlying strengths.
Just for good measure, Hornsby also successfully utilizes the song medley structure to further display his influences. Each of the album's four medleys brings in a different influence to juxtapose against Hornsby's own songs - one features the Dead, another Pink Floyd and its classic rock sounds, a third contains modern jazz courtesy of Keith Jarrett, and finally, Hornsby wraps in some classic George Jones country. Double live albums can be overlong, but Hornsby needs nearly every minute of the two and a half hour album to cover his wide artistic ground.
The release of Bride Of The Noisemakers should be also considered as a parallel to the Creative American Music Program which Bruce Hornsby recently endowed at his alma mater, the University of Miami (FL) Frost School of Music. The goal of the program is to teach songwriting by "immersing [students] in the diverse traditions that form the foundation of modern American songwriting." As Hornsby succinctly explains, "[s]uch understanding constitutes a deep well to draw from as a songwriter.”
Growing up in coastal Virginia, the birthplace of our nation, has given Bruce Hornsby a sense of history in all that he does. Bride Of The Noisemakers stands as a powerful testament to Hornsby's own understanding of that "deep well" of American songwriting.
- Jim Markel
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(Bruce Hornsby was a guest at the March 21 show)
Video of Bruce Hornsby at the Frost School