Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers, The Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ – 7/28
Whats with Bruce Hornsby anyway?
For two decades now hes been quietly touring with an ever-morphing band, playing the style of music regular readers of this site adore: stylistically diverse, danceable, adventurous, devoid of setlists or rules. At the same time an entire industry has sprouted up based on this exact genre, complete with websites, magazines, like minded bands and hordes of willing concert goers. Yet, in one of rock musics more confounding paradoxes, Bruce Hornsby and the jamband scene sometimes seem to exist in a state of mutual apathy.
In spite of this, Bruce sure isnt suffering for a crowd. He managed to fill the 2000+ seat Count Basie Theatre on July 28, a mid-recession Tuesday night in suburban New Jersey. But instead of the Great Unwashed waiting to dance in the aisles, he drew a strange amalgam of 35-45 year-old every-dudes, aged flower children, a few sets of parents with their grown kids, and even down at the end of my row four pleasant octogenarian ladies (Basie Theatre season ticket holders, it turns out, who had always enjoyed The Way it Is). Before this odd assemblage, Bruce and band known in this present configuration as the Noisemakers laid down an astonishing collection of deep cuts (The Show Goes On), big hits (The Way It Is), rave ups (Across the River), tunes off the new record (Cyclone, lyrics by Robert Hunter), and various inscrutable alchemy (Mandolin Rain>Shadowhand>Mandolin Rain>Black Muddy River>Halcyon Days>Mandolin Rain encore anyone?).
The Noisemakers have been together since 2003, when the arrival of uber-drummer Sonny Emory cemented the lineup, and feature scary good musicians across the board. Emory and bassist JV Collier form a rhythm section as lithe and powerful as an elephant ballerina. Windsman Bobby Reed and guitarist Doug Derryberry can both shred and noodle with equal acumen. And JT Thomass command of every conceivable keyboard texture makes a fine complement to Hornsbys grand piano. Collectively theyve evolved into Bruces third hand, a rock/jazz/funk/bluegrass/soul/psychopop orchestra conducted via an inscrutable system of gesticulations, head nods, winks, nudges and feints. Theyre the type of musicians with a collective inability to play a wrong note. But instead of sleepwalking through wrote recitations of aged hits, they set out at the Basie to take risky musical chances in every song. Vocal melodies were composed on the spot, intricate intraband interplay pulled from the ether, new songs crammed into the middle of old songs, lyrics transposed and overlaid; all of it done tastefully and with copious soul. Noisemakers fans have come to expect this sort of thing; if the remaining 2/3rds of the audience were left scratching their heads, so what?
Because in the end, everyone at the Basie came to see Bruce. Maybe they discovered him through his numerous film soundtracks, or his hits with the Range, or his straight ahead jazz disk (07s Camp Meeting with Jack Dejohnette and Christian McBride), maybe it was his bluegrass work with Ricky Skaggs, or his welcome additions to Charlie Hadens Grammy-nominated Rambling Boy, or his years touring with the Dead. For an artist who so broadly straddles American music, exact points of entry become difficult to identify. But they came for Bruce and Bruce they got heaping doses of virtuosity in every conceivable setting, from full band glory moments to intimate solo piano selections, and always his incredible voice. Whether rapping between songs or heartbreakingly covering The Boxer, Bruces vocal talent remains immeasurable. If all of us could sing like him, so soulfully and truthfully, surely there would be fewer headaches.
The performance at the Basie, and indeed the larger enigma of Bruce and the Noisemakers, was best encapsulated halfway through the first set when he led the band into The End of the Innocence. Its more mid-eighties musical wallpaper, co-written with Don Henley and one of a handful of tunes they play at just about every show (along with Rainbows Cadillac, The Way It Is, Mandolin Rain and Jacobs Ladder, all of which were also played, excellently, experimentally, at the Basie). The song started familiarly enough, but halfway through the Noisemakers fell into a jam, and from there modulated collectively into a minor key. Then Bruce started singing Dear Prudence and somehow it made perfect sense even though the music was all wrong. Then they went back into The End of the Innocence but they never put the rhythm or the melody back where it was supposed to be, and it all culminated in a beautiful/ugly, off time, minor key Innocence/Prudence mishmash, as fine an example of the limitless possibilities of rock music as youre ever likely to hear.
Down the end of my row, the four old ladies consulted their Playbills and twittered nervously. Onstage, Bruce and band nodded at one another, satisfied with their little world. The show went on from there.