I admittedly never gave Hornsby much time or thought during the heyday of his popularity, when I was still in high school. Rather, my late fandom came in the early 1990s, when Hornsby joined the Grateful Dead as a replacement pianist/keyboardist for the late Brent Mydland after his untimely death.
Playing with the Grateful Dead gave Hornsby a unique opportunity to step outside his usual boundaries and his pop star persona to explore his more improvisational side and new possibilities for his own solo sound -- an opportunity that would have a lasting effect on his musical career. Since his two-year stint with the Grateful Dead, I've seen Hornsby many times over, and have never regretted it.
Hornsby and the Noisemakers, his band for the last decade, returned to St. Louis and the Pageant Friday night, on tour promoting their new double live compilation release Bride of the Noisemakers. True fans know that the Virginia native has a soft spot for St. Louis -- he's an avid Cardinals baseball fan and comes here frequently to see games and hang out with his buddy Tony La Russa -- and he's known to always give one of his favorite cities a great show.
Chicago funk/rock/soul outfit Lubriphonic got the crowd properly "lubricated" with its upbeat, horn-laden sound. By the time the band finished its set to the sound of enthusiastic applause and cheers, the rapidly filling house was ready to party.
Hornsby and the Noisemakers took the stage promptly at 9 p.m., starting out with a funky piano tune from last year's Levitate called "Simple Prayer." Our prime spot in the center of the balcony allowed for a bird's-eye view of Hornsby's quick-moving fingers on the keys of his Steinway Grand piano, which would light up across the front as he laid the chords down effortlessly, sometimes even one-handed while facing the crowd.
Probably the best thing about seeing Hornsby live is watching the sheer, almost boyish, exuberance he seems to get out of performing for his fans. He has such a relaxed, easy way about him onstage that immediately draws people in as part of the show rather than simply being spectators. He freely banters with the audience, never minding their interjections, and even taking requests.
Hornsby delighted long-time fans with a trio of songs from what might be his best solo record, 1998's Spirit Trail, including "See the Same Way" and "Preacher in the Ring" Parts 1 and 2 -- two very different, back-to-back versions of the same song, featuring a gospel-inspired organ solo by John "J.T." Thomas.
He then slowed things down for a laid-back version of 80s classic "The End of the Innocence," a song written by Hornsby and made popular by the Eagles' Don Henley. There is something undeniably classy about Hornsby as a performer, particularly during songs like this one. He has no need for elaborate costumes, staging or backdrops -- just his piano, his voice and his incredible skills as a musician and songwriter.
He brought the tempo back up for pop-driven "Space is the Place" from Levitate, then left the piano to take a chair center-stage and perform a solo on the dulcimer, the sweet "Shadow Hand" from Spirit Trail. After giving a quick plug for his Saturday appearance at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, he picked the dulcimer back up for a full-band performance of twangy "Prairie Dog Town."
Continuing the display of his multi-instrumental abilities, Hornsby next strapped on his accordion, which he plays as adeptly as the full-size keyboard. Grateful Dead fans in the audience always get a kick out of his accordion solos, which he was frequent to play at Dead shows.
The band ended their main set with a strong performance of classic Bruce Hornsby and the Range song, "Across the River." After graciously thanking the audience, they retreated backstage; but fans remained front and center, knowing Hornsby wouldn't be gone long as he always gives full encores.
The full band quickly returned amid cheers from the diverse crowd, which ranged from young children to folks in their sixties and seventies. Hornsby continued the old-school vibe with what is probably his most well known hit, "Mandolin Rain." To the delight of resident Deadheads, this morphed into a tease of the Dead's "Brokedown Palace," followed by "Black Muddy River," a particularly spiritual Jerry Garcia tune and the last song he sang live with the Dead before his death in 1995.
This combination of "Mandolin Rain" and "Black Muddy River" is something Hornsby frequently plays live -- in homage to Garcia, whom he grew very close to and who had a great impact on his musical style. It always elicits a highly emotional reaction from the crowd and the two songs easily marry, flowing in and out of each other, ending with the combined lyrics "Listen to the mandolin rain, by the black muddy river."
With emotions running high, Hornsby continued with another classic and probably his most political song, "The Way it Is," a statement on unemployment and hard times that resonates perhaps even more today than it did in 1986. However, he changed it up from the original, somewhat somber version to a more bluegrass style inspired by his collaboration with Ricky Skaggs.
He then grabbed his accordion once more to end the show with upbeat fan-favorite "Rainbow's Cadillac," closing out the encore standing like the "king of the hill" atop his grand piano. He then gave nods to the band, graciously shook a few hands and waved, grinning like a kid as he exited stage left.
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