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Arts & Entertainment

When Bruce Hornsby Plays the Tarrytown Music Hall ‘Anything Can Happen’

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March 10, 2023

By W.B. King–

On his 2022 critically acclaimed record, ‘Flicted, three-time Grammy winner Bruce Hornsby did something he’s never done before on a studio album — cover a song: “Too Much Monkey Business” by Chuck Berry. The tune was arranged in partnership with Leon Russell, who like Hornsby, has graced the stage at The Tarrytown Music Hall.

“It wasn’t something that was planned, it just came up,” Hornsby told The Hudson Independent. “The story goes that in 1990/1991, I got Leon a deal with Virgin Records and I helped him with his record, but there were a couple of songs on the record I didn’t feel we quite nailed or captured completely.”

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Those recording sessions resulted in Russell’s album, Anything Can Happen (1994), which marked his first release in 10 years. Known as “The Master of Space and Time,” Russell made a request of Hornsby, who co-wrote seven of the 10 songs. “He asked me to write him a ‘Barry White’ track, so I did my best attempt,” Hornsby said, noting that the resulting song shares the album’s title.

The lyrics read, in part: “I can come up with the ending. The middle, beginning and end. I’ll follow you all the way there and back again.”

When arranging his 2020 album, Non-Secure Connection, which features “My Resolve,” a duet with James Mercer from The Shins (picked as one of the Best Songs of 2020 by The New York Times), Hornsby thought back to the album with Russell, ultimately deciding to revisit the tune “Anything Can Happen.”

“Recording that [song] made me want to do it again,” said Hornsby, noting the desire to re-record “Too Much Monkey Business,” which he said was, and remains, “sort of a rap-ish arrangement.” Hornsby sings on the syncopated tune this time around. “I wanted to remake it…maybe punch it up a little bit. I feel like we did and I often don’t feel that way.”

Tumbleweed Connection

Russell, who passed in 2016, was perhaps best known for his tune “A Song for You,” but he played on albums by The Beach Boys, George Harrison, Barbara Streisand, among other celebrated artists. He also served as the bandleader for Joe Cocker’s legendary1970 Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, which is when Hornsby became enamored with Russell’s musicianship.

“My [older] brother was at a prep school in New England and had gone to The Capitol Theatre [in Port Chester, N.Y.] and had actually saw that group live and he gave a me a bootleg cassette,” he said. “I listened to it every morning before I went to school — it just floored me.”

Around the same time, the same brother, Bobby, turned him on to Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection. The album, Hornsby noted, “changed my life.” The musical impact is not surprising considering that Elton John once said of Russell: “He was my mentor and inspiration.”

So at the time, Hornsby said “Elton and Leon were my guys,” but he was a “hooper” at heart, a self-described “athletic enthusiast” who to that point only dabbled in playing music, mostly on guitar.

“Like every kid who saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I wanted to play guitar and so I did. I was writing little songs and playing them for little shows around, but mostly I was a jock,” Hornsby said, noting that the Tumbleweed Connectionsea change came the summer before his junior year in high school. “Basketball was my game but I just kind of moved my focus from there fairly quickly over to a deep involvement with the piano and that has never abated,” he said.

Turkey in the Straw

Growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia, music was a way of life in the Hornsby house. Somewhere in the family archives exists a recording of a young Bruce Hornsby trying out his vocal chops.

“My parents had a tape we are trying to rediscover that has me singing ‘Hound Dog’ at age for our five,” he recalled of the Elvis Presley song. “The first record I played over and over again so much so that I learned how to do every phrase along with the singer was ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ by Bob Dylan.” The red Columbia label of that 45 record, he said, is emblazoned in his memory as is his first concert, Peter, Paul and Mary, which he saw around age eight.

While Hornsby said the sound of him singing Dylan throughout the house drove his parents crazy at times, it wasn’t a surprising expression. From the 1920s through the 1960s, his grandfather served as the supervisor of music in the public school system. He also gigged at the local theatre playing tunes like “Turkey in the Straw” on the house organ to 3,000-plus people who were likely in town for a business convention.

His father, a real estate agent and attorney, played saxophone for a time in his older brother’s swing band, Sherwood Hornsby and His Rhythm Boys. And following in her father’s footsteps, Hornsby’s mom was an accomplished pianist.

“My mother knew what good hand position looked like,” Hornsby recalled of his initial days of playing piano. One afternoon she noticed that his hands “looked rough.” Knowing her son was deeply committed to learning the instrument, she sought out a teacher: Pat Curtis from Virginia Beach. “He was the local jazz czar of the area and he got me straight,” Hornsby recalled.

Changes

Studying at the University of Richmond and the Berkeley School of Music, Hornsby would later graduate from The University of Miami’s music program in 1977. During these formative years, he began honing his skills on piano — from jazz to bluegrass to improvisational rock and genres in-between — as well as crafting and singing original tunes.

After college, he played around in popular bands, including his older brother’s group, “Bobby Hi-Test and the Octane Kids” in and around their hometown. A few years later, Hornsby and his younger brother, John, moved to Los Angeles where they would serve as songwriting partners under a 20th Century Fox contract.

Along with doing session work, Hornsby was in Sheena Easton’s touring band, but his career forever changed in 1984 when he formed Bruce Hornsby and The Range. The band’s debut album and title track, The Way It Is (1986) achieved multi-platinum status, earning Hornsby the Grammy Award for the Best New Artist in 1987.

“All that success right away unexpectedly on a song about racism with two improvised piano solos is hardly the formula for hit radio but that’s what happened — a fluky, sort of wonderful accident,” Hornsby said of the insightful, melodic tune that addresses segregation, poverty and references the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The song has since been sampled numerous times by rap artists, including Tupac Shakur. Though the famed rapper died in 1996, his song “Changes” was released posthumously in 1998 and became an international hit. In 2020, artist Polo G, then 21 years old, sampled “The Way It Is” for his song “Wishing for a Hero” that has more than 16 million views on YouTube.

Legendary filmmaker Spike Lee also took notice of Hornsby years ago resulting in a longstanding collaborative relationship that began with Hornsby writing “Love Me Still” with Chaka Kahn for the 1995 film Clockers and then contributing music for If God is Willin’And the Creek Don’t Rise (2010), Old Boy (2013) and Chiraq (2015). He also scored both seasons of Lee’s Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It (2017 and 2019, respectively) and wrote and performed original music for Lee’s 2018 film Blackkklansman.

Keeping it Loose with ‘Dead’ Ideas

Hornsby’s career is akin to a moving musical dartboard with the multi-instrumentalist, writer and singer often hitting bullseyes.

Along with his work with The Range that produced other hits like “Mandolin Rain,” which was co-written with his younger brother, John, there is “The End of the Innocence,” co-written with Don Henley of The Eagles. Then there are his two other Grammy awards. He earned the Best Bluegrass Recording (1989) for a version of The Range hit “The Valley Road,” which appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume Two. He also has a shared win with famed jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis for their song “Barcelona Mona” which nabbed the 1993 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental, a song written and performed for the 1992 Olympic Games.

Over the years, Hornsby has been afforded many opportunities to play with musicians he revered growing up like Elton John, Eric Clapton, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Wayne Shorter and Mavis Staples, among countless others, including Bonnie Raitt where he can be heard playing piano on her hit song “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” He also co-wrote “Cyclone,” among other tunes, with the late Robert Hunter, best known as the lyricist for the Grateful Dead.

Hornsby, who began seeing the Grateful Dead perform in the 1970s, first opened for the legendary group in 1988 while playing with The Range. He shared bills with the Dead, known for their long improvisational concerts, off and on for the next two years, often sitting in as a guest, sometimes on accordion.

In July 1990, when the band’s long time keyboardist Brent Mydland died, Hornsby was asked to help the group ease in their new keyboardist, Vince Welnick. This began a 20-month journey with the band, totaling more than 100 concerts. The first show (of a five-night run) took place at Madison Square Garden that September with both new members walking on stage without a net.

“When Vince and I first started playing with them, we did use set lists because we didn’t know all the songs,” Hornsby shared. “I knew a lot of them because I played in my brother’s Grateful Dead cover band, but soon enough, within the first two months of playing with them, the set lists were no longer part of the drill.”

Longtime fans of Hornsby, whether with The Range, The Noisemakers, a solo act or some other configuration, are accustomed to a conversational relationship with the troubadour. He encourages them to leave song requests on the stage before the show. And while this freeform approach might seem like a result of playing with the Grateful Dead, the concept sprouted organically outside of that familiar bubble.

“In 1990, we [The Range] were playing at Great Woods in Massachusetts and the Cowboy Junkies were opening for us but someone got sick and the whole gig was ours,” Hornsby said. After apologizing for the change in direction, he told the audience: “We are going to keep it loose and take requests, so write them down and throw them up on the stage and that is what will happen tonight.”

Explaining that this initial experience yielded interesting results, Hornsby has kept the “spontaneous” tradition alive.

“I was doing that before I played with the Dead, but I was influenced by them in frankly deeper ways as a songwriter,” he said. “I just love their songs. There are a couple of my songs where I completely cop ‘Dead’ ideas.”

When he did manage to suggest songs to play to members of the Grateful Dead, who at that point were performing for 25-plus years, he felt humored at times. Undeterred, Hornsby became the “squeaky wheel” often offering curveball choices.

“Let’s play ‘Wharf Rat’ to start off,” he would say to the band. The introspective ballad was most often performed toward the end of the night. He also suggested opening a show with “Drums and Space,” an improvisational instrumental segment traditionally slotted midway through the second set.

While the band never acted on those two specific suggestions, he said set lists began getting “shaken up” from some of the “tried and true maxims” they developed over the years. He would tell the band: “You have the most forgiving and loving audience ever and they will be mad for it because it is different and they will be talking about if for years…‘Remember when they opened with ‘Drums and Space,’” Hornsby surmised of Dead Head chatter with a laugh.

In 1994, Hornsby, never considered a full-time member of the group, inducted the Grateful Dead into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, saying from the podium: “The Dead have always been about more than rock and roll…about artistic curiosity and freedom and has always been interested in and involved with the gamut of the music of the world.”

As for the band’s defacto leader Jerry Garcia, Hornsby told The Hudson Independent: “I love his playing. I love him as a person and as a songwriter.” Garcia also performed on Hornsby’s songs, including “Across the River” and “Cruise Control,” the latter track was one of Garcia’s last studio recordings before his passing in 1995.

Throughout the forthcoming years, Hornsby has performed with the survivng members of the band in different configurations as well as at the celebratory 2015 “Fare Thee Well” concerts in Santa Clara, Calif. and Chicago, marking the last time the original band members performed together on stage in recognition of their 50th anniversary.

Musical Mural

When Hornsby returns to The Tarrytown Music Hall on March 26, 2023, he does so as a solo artist. He intends to provide the audience with an evening of music curated from the depth and breadth of his vast musical career, including his 2019 album Absolute Zero, featuring the tune “Voyager One,” co-written by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), which was selected by The New York Times as one of the Best Songs of 2019. The same year, the pair also co-wrote “Yu Man Like” for Bon Iver’s 2019 album i,i, which Hornsby sang and performed on.

Noting that Absolute Zero was the first in a trilogy of albums that concluded with ‘Flicted, Hornsby reflected on where his career started and where it currently stands, a juxtaposition of influences and experiences. Aside from Vernon, other younger musicians from bands like Vampire Weekend are seeking him out due to his impact on their music.

“The most rewarding part of that [early] success was all the affirmations and requests to work together from all these people I admired when I was coming up — from the [Grateful] Dead, to [Bob] Dylan to Robbie Robertson…Ricky Skaggs, Jack DeJohnette and on and on…painting yourself into the mural you have been looking at as a kid,” Hornsby said. “Then 25-30 years later, it came full circle. Now I’m the elder getting shouted out. I wasn’t reaching out to them, they were reaching out to me — that’s the most fulfilling thing. I guess you can say, ‘lucky me.’”

For fans attending the performance in Tarrytown, Hornsby said anything can happen, especially if everyone keeps an open mind and, if so inclined, suggests a song for him to play.

“I have someone collect them [requests] about 10 minutes before I play and I go through them and pick the ones I want to play. It informs my selection because sometimes someone makes a request I wouldn’t have thought of. I like that prod — that reminder,” he said. The requests are usually for deep tracks, though attendees can expect to hear four or five of his “old, well-known” songs. Those in attendance, however, shouldn’t be surprised if Hornsby throws one of his curveballs, like intermingling a Keith Jarrett jazz/classical tune into one of his hits.

“I’ve played the Tarrytown Music Hall a lot, a standard haunt for me. I have certain goals and ideas I want to express, but it’s a very free approach,” Hornsby said. “The solo concert is a good way to hear everything I do. You really get to hear the full sum total of who I am as a musician.”

For ticket information, visit: www.tarrytownmusichall.org.

 

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